Alan Jones has a lot to teach us. Well, not really, unless we all need lessons on being a vicious hate-monger — but there is plenty to be learned from all the heat and noise that coalesced around him recently.
There’s a real temptation to be angry at how things panned out during the past couple of months for Alan Jones. As the dust settled in early November, there was a perception peddled from both ends of the political spectrum that, after a brief period of sustained tutt-tuttery, things for the broadcaster had returned to business as usual.
And in at least some respects, this is undoubtedly the case. Fantasies of Jones being blasted into the sun out of ACMA’s mighty Truth Cannon have not materialised. The much-hyped exodus of advertisers was short-lived. The social media campaign appears to have, at least in part, backfired. Jones seems to have emerged from the flames like a bloated, hateful phoenix — and this is more than enough to give his detractors cause for some extreme and sustained crankiness.
But I’m a bit fed up with being angry — if we continue to have conniptions every time someone says something abhorrent and it goes unpunished, we’re not only going to spend depressingly vast swathes of our brief time on this earth wailing and teeth-gnashing, but we’re also going to cheapen the very real currency of public outcry. So rather than sobbing in a virtual shower in a quiet corner of the internet, I thought up five things I’ve learned from the Alan Jones saga that made me feel better.
There is nothing, literally nothing, that Alan Jones can do or say to alienate a large portion of his base.
To preempt the pedants, probably not literally nothing. I mean, it’s unlikely that he could go directly to his listeners’ houses, one by one of a Sunday afternoon, and kick each of them in the dick and still retain support. I say that partially because I just don’t think he’s got that many dick-kicks in him.
What I mean, though, is on the conceivable spectrum of stupid shit that could fall out of his face in the future, there is no point at which a huge chunk of his listeners would turn their backs on him.
Listen to the calls that Jones played his first day back on air after the controversy and you’ll see why. It’s not that they have forgiven him this transgression, it’s that it’s perceived as wholly irrelevant. Because while Jones has been venerated (and has venerated himself) as some a kind of generalissimo of the people’s revolt, his show isn’t about him personally. It’s about all those who oppose him. It’s a movement that defines itself entirely in opposition. In the same way that it’s not about building up Abbott, but knocking down Gillard, this was not about absolving Jones but vilifying his detractors. And the harder anyone pushes against it, the more it confirms the conspiratorial ‘us vs the rest of them’ world-view of his dedicated listeners. With breakneck speed, this issue stopped being about Jones and started being about freedom of speech. Which brings us to -
No one has a firm grip on what, if anything, freedom of speech means in Australia.
If we set aside the slightly difficult problem that Australia only really has an implied freedom of speech – which is difficult because one of the things the Alan Jones affair has proven is that there’s a distinct lack of accord about what freedom of speech actually means. In fact, the only thing the overwhelming majority of commentators seemed to be able to agree on was that it was somehow being violated by someone, and that if this sort of thing was allowed to continue, it wouldn’t be long before we’re all tobogganing down the slippery slope to Leningrad.
But several commentators, including Jones himself, seem to hold steadfast to the belief that freedom of speech guarantees a person a syndicated radio show. For example, Channel Ten’s Paul Henry dedicated his breakfast program last week to Jones, calling his positive ratings a victory for freedom of speech. Aside from the fact that receiving an endorsement from the host of Channel Ten Breakfast is about as good as standing next to Meatloaf while he sings America The Beautiful, a larger point seems to have been missed here. Paul, you of all people should know that FoS does not insulate you from losing a broadcasting job for saying egregious things.
And why on earth should it?
If your job is to be popular and then you become unpopular – due in no small part to the revelation that you’re a bit more of a bastard than any reasonable person is really comfortable with – then you are not the victim of an attack on free speech, you are just shit at your job.
But, having said that...
We really need to stop trying to get Alan Jones pulled off the air.
There are only two outcomes here for social media activists. Either you try and get Alan Jones pulled off the air and you fail, strengthening his position as an unassailable kingmaker and your image as a cabal of hyper-sensitive lefties screeching for a beheading every time you get upset, or you succeed. Only thing is, succeeding is probably the worst thing you could do for your cause.
Remember when Judge Mordecai Bromberg ruled against Andrew Bolt in his racial vilification trial and Bolt became a pariah, rejected by his conservative colleagues and forced to work at a fast food chain in a humiliating little hat? You don’t remember that? That’s because it didn’t happen. What did happen for Andrew Bolt is that he became a martyr, got a national television show and became a poster boy for freedom of speech in Australia.
In cases like Alan Jones, the healthiest thing to do is to accept that, even if you manage to strike him down, not only will he become more powerful than you can possibly imagine, but someone else will eagerly take his place. Lord knows there are enough blustering arseholes waiting in the wings and we can’t put a moratorium on people being shitheads on the radio. And we shouldn’t, either.
And that’s because...
Progressives are vastly overestimating the power of Jones and the far right of the media.
There’s a real fear creeping up in certain circles that the political atmosphere is toxic and noxious in a way that it’s never been before and this is in no small part due to the fever pitch reached by Australia’s stable of conservative commentators. There have been comparisons made to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Bolt’s been hailed as Australia’s Bill O’Reilly.
This is neither true nor fair, but the important thing to remember is that even if our commentators eventually stray that far toward the edge of the spectrum, it’s not actually the worst thing in the world for progressives. If the Romney loss taught us anything, it’s the potentially destructive force of an ideological echo-chamber, conservative or otherwise.
Constantly feeding the faithful what they want to hear creates a feedback loop, which more or less quarantines the listeners from reality. We’re left with the image of a room full of people in a sound-proof booth yelling at each other about how angry they are until they tucker themselves out and have a nap.
I’m not suggesting that Jones does not have a negative impact on the media landscape, but his detractors and supporters undeniably overstate it.
So chin up, everyone.
It’s not that bad, guys, I swear. Just don’t respond to the kid throwing balls of paper at the back of your head. He’s just doing it for the attention and because he feels bad about himself.
And if you’re still angry, maybe this will help: Just remember that every evening, Alan Jones has to crawl into bed, certain in the knowledge that no matter what happens during the night, when he opens his eyes in the morning and sits up, quietly exhaling, he will still be Alan Jones.