In the long history of talk radio, there has been no shortage of inauspicious moments.
Father Coughlin used his shortwave pulpit to lend the American Catholic Church’s imprimatur to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and support anti-Semitic policies in the Third Reich. Cigar and opiate aficionado Rush Limbaugh called a university student a “slut” after she argued in favour of a plan to force medical insurers to cover contraceptives.
Mam Sonando orchestrated a secession plot in a landlocked province with no natural resources beyond low yield rubber plantations and dolphin meat, after a lifetime spent promoting human rights and democracy to conceal his Macbeth-like ambitions to become Shogun of Kratie. (Sounds legit!).
Evil as these three men may be, nothing and no-one in the history of the medium beats the sheer odiousness of Sydney’s Alan Jones, Australia’s most influential, highly rating talkback host.
The corpulent voice of every reactionary, self-entitled instinct of his country, the sheer banality and unhinged venom of Jones’s persona is something that could only arise in a first-world country that takes such pride in its second-rate public, cultural and intellectual life—a land where the film industry is mendicant, the TV networks only produce cookie cutter cop dramas on shoestrings to satisfy local content requirements, the newspapers are exclusively run by the beer-sodden leftovers from Murdoch’s B-team, and columnists cultivate Colonel Kurtz followings by releasing books entirely premised around café latte musings so god-awfully naff that David Sedaris would curl up and die with embarrassment like a snail doused in salt by the schoolyard sociopath.
In a land of media mediocrity, talkback radio is the one form of mass-communication in which Australia truly excels; the bile, hectoring and more-than-occasional forays into unbridled racism has no peer outside Rwanda in the early ‘90s. Among the coterie of cranky baby boomers shrieking into their microphones every morning, Alan Jones is the undisputed Emperor.
He calls climate change “witchcraft” and he agrees with callers who say the government is trying to introduce communism by stealth. He used his breakfast show to fan the flames of what could reasonably be described as an anti-Lebanese race riot on the shores of Cronulla Beach in 2005. Before that, he was found to have received a seven figure deal to read unscripted comments praising certain major companies in Australia—sleazy, undisclosed kickbacks he excused because he considered himself to be an entertainer to whom the laws of journalistic ethics did not apply.
Most of his vitriol is these days reserved for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female head of state, who Jones earlier in the year remarked should be shoved in a chaff bag and dropped out at sea. After spending the last two years languishing in the polls, Gillard’s Labor Party has recently been resurgent, less the product of any major seachange in public goodwill and more a testament to the inept parliamentary opposition under Tony Abbott—himself in possession of a massive problem with women in leadership, and a close confidante of Jones.
The broadcaster has accordingly become even more hysterical than usual in recent weeks. At a dinner function for the youth wing of the conservative party on the weekend, Jones was invited to give the keynote address, joking that Gillard’s recently deceased father had “died of shame” as a result of her government.
In the country that gave the world Crocodile Dundee and Vegemite, the lines of good taste often seem fickle and arbitrary. That Jones would finally be called out for saying something no less egregious than 100 of his past rantings is curious, but beside the point.
Event organisers initially denied the remarks, but after a recording of the proceedings surfaced, Jones fronted the media on Sunday, wearing a typically gauche checked shirt and grey jacket ensemble to deliver a typically mealy-mouthed non-apology.
Had he been a little more genuine in his remorse, the matter might have been left there. Instead an online campaign targeting Jones’s sponsors, orchestrated through Reddit and Facebook, has left his radio station out of pocket to the tune of 80 large a day, if not rendering the broadcaster any more contrite.
If similar boycotts targeted against Limbaugh and Beck in the States are any guide, the advertisers will sneak back in after a few months, reluctant to avoid alienating that crucial 80+/male/stroke-addled dollar.
The more enduring damage to Jones’s on-air antics may be the long roster of politicians who have announced their decision to refrain appearing on his program. If there’s one positive thing to come out of this unedifying affair, it’ll be the government belatedly learning the lesson that you can’t reason with crazy.