In the aftermath of Alan Jones’ infamous “died of shame” remark, both major political parties were quick to condemn Jones for his vulgarity, before descending into political brawls; Labor attempting to connect Jones to Abbott, and the Liberals, keen to repudiate any substantive connections between themselves and the right-wing broadcaster, have labelled such allegations as a sign of desperate electioneering. Yet while the political backdrop continues unabated, there has been sustained effort on the part of the commentariat and the public at large to see Jones sacked from 2GB.
This increasingly popular demand is an excellent case study of what is wrong with contemporary media in Australia. While to any independent observer it is clear that Jones’ phenomenal list of scandals and controversies should render his contract tenuous at best, there has never been the sustained public pressure that there is currently. Indeed, Jones has long been so popular with listeners and corporate sponsors that the verbal prostitution of “cash for comment” simply rolled off his back.
While one might argue that the current calls for his head reflect 20 years of pent-up frustration with Jones’ conservatism, I believe it is more indicative of a more modern trend: the hysteria of offence, followed by corporate disownership, culminating with the sack. This trend has been prevalent in America for years, going back to political talk-show host Bill Maher, who commented post-9/11 that Islamic terrorists, while perhaps evil, are not cowardly per se. This set off the proverbial shitstorm of media hell, leading to various sponsors dropping support, and finally the network cancelling his show. Rush Limbaugh’s brazen misogynistic comments about women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke (much worse than those uttered by Jones) similarly resulted in sponsors fleeing in droves, albeit with Limbaugh still on the airwaves.
So what is so troublesome about silencing such public figures? Wouldn’t that simply be about maintaining the civility of public discourse? But who gets to decide what is appropriate or not, aside from some vague entity known as “society”? The problem is that sponsors do not respond to the actual conduct of the shows which they endorse – they react to shrill hysteria of an often unclear origin. This has become particularly evident in our hyperactive, over-sensitive modern media, in which comments that “could cause offence” or are simply labelled “offensive” have led to such phenomenal scrutiny that one could easily be forgiven for considering issues like climate change and the European economy relatively unimportant.
Instead of cheering for Woolworths, Coles, Telstra, and others for disowning Jones, we should be demanding why they would ever sponsor an individual known for such gross conduct in the first place. Jones has been the most infamous public broadcaster for many years; it is impossible to ignore his plethora of nasty views. For sponsors to ditch Jones says little about their moral courage or social understanding, indeed it says precisely what we all should be aware of: corporations have no ethics, care not for society, and care only for profits. How else do we explain sponsorship of a man who not only openly welcomed but actively encouraged violence against ethnic groups?
Over the past 20 years we have clearly accepted that Jones’ views, while disagreeable, are at least tolerable. By responding to shrill hysteria in order to sack him, we are doing little to counter bigotry at its roots; rather we are simply taking advantage of a collective feverishness in order to achieve a short-term political goal. Such strategies may be effective to sack a controversial radio host, but do little to promote public civility and more importantly would set undesirable precedents for public discourse.