Radio personality Alan Jones has been in trouble again, this time because he made some insensitive comments about the recent death of the father of Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Sydney University’s Liberal Club President’s Dinner. Jones suggested Gillard’s father ‘died of shame’ as a result of the lies his daughter had told the Australian public. Jones has since apologised to the Prime Minister, in a rather half-hearted way. Subsequently advertisers have been leaving Jones’ radio station, 2GB, in droves after pressure from a concerted campaign by a variety of social media groups (such as feminist group Destroy the Joint) such that the radio station has now chosen to run Jones’ show ad-free.
I started drafting this post days ago, but I have been resisting writing on the Jones issue. Part of my reason for not continuing with the post was that I don’t think much of Jones, and I felt that to talk about him is to is to give him credence. To be honest, as a Melbourner, I never really knew much about Jones until the Cronulla riots. And what I heard then didn’t impress me. It’s not that Jones is right-wing. I have friends who are right-wing and friends who are left-wing, and obviously enough, I blog with persons of a variety of political stripes. I don’t mind whether or not a person disagrees with me politically as long as they treat me civilly and with respect. What I dislike about Jones is this: he is an uncivil demagogue who plays on the fears of ordinary people. So I do not feel particularly sympathetic towards him. Jones should be able to accept the same hand that he deals others on a frequent basis. His complaint that he is being bullied seems more than a little hypocritical given that his radio schtick involves unpleasant and bullying comments about others. As Malcolm Turnbull said the other night in his Alfred Deakin lecture:
”Mr Jones has sought to lead ‘people’s revolts’ for many years. But this was indeed a popular revolt against vicious and destructive public discourse … It is difficult not to believe that he is getting a dose of his own medicine …
”Mr Jones has complained that he has been the victim of social media bullying, saying that if it happened anywhere else in society, this kind of bullying or harassment or intimidation or threatening conduct, the police would be called in …
”But Mr Jones believes his association with certain products will encourage people to buy them … If other people take the view that an association with Mr Jones will lead them not to buy those products, why are they not able to tell the advertiser of their view and encourage others to do the same?”
(Turnbull’s speech is interesting and rather good, by the way: it raises broader issues about liberty, freedom, privacy and internet — I recommend you have a read — he raises issues, among other things, about online indiscretions being indelible, and the risks and benefits associated with this).
Jones has a right to say what he did. I’m not suggesting that he should be regulated by law or censored (that way lies danger). But I also think that others in our society have an equal right to find what he said unpleasant and inappropriate, and to say that they do not like it and other things he has said. Moreover, the attempt in this case to resolve political issues via the marketplace is not new or unusual, and if I were an advertiser who was going to be tainted by association with Jones, I’d rather know about it than not.
I’d also suggest that both Jones and his listeners should think about Rabbi Hillel’s Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” In short: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Once you start being rude and uncivil to others, they feel at liberty to be rude and uncivil towards you, hence the passion with which some of Jones’ critics have pursued him. Mind you, SL noted on Facebook that Jones is lucky that he is being pursued by lefties because, by and large allegations as to his sexuality have not been used against him (and nor should people do so).
SL also made the point that perhaps the net effect of social media and online scrutiny will be that public figures will have to be more civil if they want to avoid this kind of backlash, and has noted to me privately, ‘the era of the anonymous city is over, and politeness codes will be back with a vengeance. That can be a good or bad thing, because I can well imagine social media being used as the electronic equivalent of a scold’s bridle, the stocks or the Roman practice of infamia.’ As an illustration of the effect of online scrutiny and criticism, the MC of the Liberal Club President’s Dinner, Simon Berger, had to resign from his position with Woolworths because he supplied a jacket made out of a chaff bag which Jones signed on the evening on the dinner. The chaff bag jacket was a reference to Jones’ frequent comments in his show that Gillard should be tied in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea. I feel sorry for Berger, notwithstanding the silly chaff bag stunt, because although he’s participated in all this, he’s done so in his private capacity, and he’s the one who has lost his job, not Jones. I have a terrible suspicion that Jones may be as indestructible as a cockroach in a nuclear winter. If the Cash for Comment scandal didn’t ruin him, I’m not sure what else will.
Pragmatically, however, I think there’s a broader issue. Taking a step back: why does Jones appeal to listeners? As Nick Cater noted in an article in The Australian the other day, many of the listeners who phoned into Jones’ show regarded him as the one person who listens to their concerns:
…More than a quarter expressed gratitude for his role as public defender: “Thank you for fighting for us,” said Catherine; “You’re the hope of the side, mate,” said John.
You see, I think Jones’ appeal is all about fear. More precisely, Jones listens to the fears of his listeners, and that is why many are so very loyal to him. I suspect that there are a certain group of people who have fears about a variety of issues in modern society, and who feel that their fears are brushed off by mainstream politicians (particularly, perhaps, by the incumbent Labor government). But Jones listens to them sympathetically. He agrees with them. At times, when convenient, he fans the fears. Many of these people would have probably been part of Labor’s traditional voting base, but became John Howard’s “battlers” because they felt that Labor no longer represented them.
Anne Summers’ speech (vanilla version) on misogyny and criticism of women in politics is revealing. I agree with Summers that some criticisms of Gillard are sexist (has a male politician ever been criticised for the size of his bum? for the jackets he wears? been accused of being “deliberately barren”? called a “cow”?) And I also believe that some of Jones’ on-air comments display a deep misogyny. Saying that Gillard should be put in a chaff bag is rude and childish, but not misogynist. However, in August this year, Jones told listeners, “She (the Prime Minister) said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating. Women are destroying the joint – Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly.” This infers he doesn’t like women to have political power or to participate in political process. I am on record as saying that I thought Christine Nixon’s evidence in the Bushfires Royal Commission was appalling — and I am also on record as saying that, although I was a fan of Gillard in the past, I’m disappointed about a number of things she and her government have done. But my problem with the performance of these women is not that they are women per se, whereas Jones’ comments suggest that his problem with them is simply that they are women, and that women should not participate in the Australian political process because they destroy our society. Well, he’s entitled to say that if he wants, but that is patently a misogynistic point of view.
But I am not sure that I agree with all of Summers’ speech. I noted the part of her speech where she gave examples of unpleasant criticisms of Gillard, which she said demonstrated that ‘the contempt for the prime minister has leached out of the political domain and into the daily lives of ordinary Australians’:
- A few weeks ago in Darwin my friend was picked up from her hotel by a cab. The taxi driver said to her, totally out of the blue: “How could you be staying at the same hotel as the lying c**t”. Apparently Julia Gillard had stayed at the same hotel the week before when she was in Darwin to welcome the Indonesian president. The taxi driver continued: “Someone should have shot her while she was here. Everyone wants to do it.”
- In July in Sydney a stallholder in the flower market at Flemington apologised to a friend of mine who was buying some flowers for having to add GST “for Julia”; he then followed it by saying “we’ve got to get rid of the bitch”.
- Another friend told me about an encounter his mother, whom he describes as “quietly spoken and conservative-looking”, had at a medical office in Albury when she went to submit a form for her latest MRI. The man behind the counter said to her, unprovoked: “I’ll send it off to the red-haired bitch”.
Prima facie, there’s a gendered aspect to the criticisms Summers repeats above. The critics were all men, and described Gillard, a woman, in derogatory terms which were also gendered (referring to female dogs and female genitalia). Therefore it may be tempting to write off the criticisms as simple sexism which has been fanned by demagogues such as Jones. Where charismatic media demagogues are concerned I have observed a tendency to assume that anyone who expresses a similar opinion as merely a sheep following the party line without thought. I think this may be true of some, but I also think that the reality is somewhat more complex than this. Presenters such as Jones are successful precisely because they manage to channel and vocalise a sentiment which already exists in some sections of the community. If they did not reflect certain pre-existing sentiments within the community, they would not be so popular. Of course, that being said, by making such views public, the views in question are given social confirmation, and more readers, listeners or watchers may come to also participate in those views or in that section of the community. Public opinion and the opinions of the demagogue feed each other. But just because someone has a superficially similar opinion to Jones does not necessarily mean that the person has listened to Jones or been influenced by him. I have noted a tendency among Sydneysiders to overstate Jones’ influence. My Sydney-based grandparents have been ranting about him since my teenage years, but for many years I had no clue who this guy was. Clearly Jones has influence in Sydney and beyond, but it shouldn’t be over-estimated.
Returning to the three men whose criticisms Summers repeats, I suggest that it is dangerous for the Labor to simply brush off the criticisms of Gillard by these men as “sexist”, and that the Left should be wary of such superficial analyses. What should be done in these instances is to ask these men why they are so very unhappy and angry with Gillard, and what the source of their anger is. Now, it may be that perhaps these men are sexist, and that they simply hate Gillard because she’s a woman. But it also may be that their anger has more concrete and genuine bases which relate to fears of societal instability. Perhaps (to pick an example) they voted for Labor on the strength of Gillard’s assurance that her government was not going to introduce a carbon tax, and they would not have voted for her had they known that she was going to do so. Perhaps they are now afraid of the financial impact of the carbon tax on their families and feel personally duped and enraged. I don’t know whether this is the case: this is pure supposition on my part. But my point is that no one else knows why these men said what they did either. I think it’s a mistake to simply write off the reaction of these men as sexist without probing deeper to see if there is some genuine basis for the criticisms beyond pure sexism.
I should also note that one of the things which has rendered this saga so very toxic has been the underlying political landscape with the Federal minority Labor government struggling in the polls. To be honest, I think no one in this saga comes out lily white. On the one hand, Labor has said that Jones’ commentary is symptomatic of a broader misogyny regarding Julia Gillard. And as I already noted, Anne Summers has made a similar argument. Thus, when Jones’ comments were reported, Labor immediately attempted to link Jones’ comments with Tony Abbott, the LNP Opposition leader, who emerges in polls as being substantially less appealing to female voters. Female Labor Parliamentarians have long said Abbott has a problem with women in authority, which prompted Abbott’s wife and daughters to face the press last week and deny this. The Opposition has complained that Labor did not attack former Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis for his unpleasant comments about Gillard’s father’s death, and it has also protested that persons associated with Labor have made comments in the past about LNP members which are equally as unpleasant as Jones’, so there is an element of hypocrisy about all of this. And, despite the accusations of misogyny against former Speaker Peter Slipper detailed below, Abbott has said he will happily accept Slipper’s vote in his favour.
But the sad reality is that both parties are prepared to let unpleasant comments and worse go past the keeper if it advances their political fortunes. Remember that when Jones was found by ACMA to have incited violence towards Lebanese and Middle Eastern Australians, both John Howard and Kevin Rudd said that they’d continue to support Jones and appear on his show.
The immediate plot has thickened even further yesterday when the Opposition sought to oust the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper from his position. Slipper is a former LNP Member of Parliament who accepted the minority Labor government’s offer to sit as Speaker so that the Labor Party’s position was less precarious. Slipper is now being sued by a former staffer for sexual harassment, and, as part of that trial, a variety of lewd text messages allegedly sent from Slipper to Ashby concerning women’s genitalia and other matters were tendered in court yesterday. Abbott said that Slipper was unfit to sit as Speaker because of his lewd behaviour towards women and his misogyny, but the motion to remove Slipper failed by one vote (69 to 70). When speaking about Labor’s continuing support of Slipper, Abbott said the Labor Government “should already have died of shame”. (One must wonder whether this apparent reference to Jones’ earlier insult was intentional, or merely an instance of foolish foot in mouth disease? Abbott claims it was unintentional. Whether intentional or unintentional, it illustrates why I continue to have concerns about the prospect of Abbott being Prime Minister.) Gillard responded furiously to Abbott by saying that it was inappropriate for him to lecture her on misogyny: “I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man [Abbott]. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.” She also said, “Well can I indicate to the Leader of the Opposition the Government is not dying of shame, my father did not die of shame. What the Leader of the Opposition should be ashamed of is his performance in this Parliament and the sexism he brings with it.” Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that I’m a rather cynical person, but I have to say that, when I initially watched the speech, I saw it primarily in functional terms as a tactic to distract from the fact that Labor has remained in power by supporting two individuals, Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, against whom very serious allegations had been made. This is also how the professional political commentators generally saw it as well. But, as these two pieces note, this is not how many other people saw it; and Gillard’s speech seems to have resonated with many. I’d say that Abbott is not regarded with respect by many progressive middle-class, educated women (and some men), if my Facebook feed yesterday was any indication; they see Abbott as an unpleasant bully, and were delighted to see Gillard put him in his place. Apparently the speech has also received positive international attention. Fortunately for all, perhaps, Slipper has since tearfully resigned from the position of Speaker and will sit on the cross bench as an independent.
Nonetheless, Overland blog had an important and pithy reminder for all those cheering Gillard’s speech:
If winning or losing in politics was merely a matter of who had the best one-liners to throw along with their stones, then Gillard won yesterday hands down. But politics is not simply about whip-smart wisecracks and cutting speeches. It’s about policies and practices, legislation and social organisation.
Yesterday, the Gillard government also passed welfare reforms through the Senate that will cut single parent payments between $56 and $140 a week. This is a measure that will disproportionately affect women, and particularly those in the sectors of society that the Labor Party is traditionally supposed to represent. And yet, when the heavily debated reforms finally came to a vote in the Senate, only the Greens and Independents Madigan and Xenophon voted against it.
It’s been said before but it bears repeating: standing up for women’s rights is not just about calling sexism for what it is. It’s about agitating for specific change. It’s about making concrete demands of society and of the government. So if this is feminism that Gillard is representing in parliament, then I want to know, whose feminism is it? I don’t care how many sharp speeches she makes: her government is making life for some of the most vulnerable women in Australia even harder than it already is, and I want no part in it.
Very nicely said.
My fear is this: that the net result of all of this will not be the decline of Jones, but instead an increasing polarisation in Australian society where a certain alienated group of people (the Jones “battlers”) feels that another group of people in society (the educated, middle-class “elite”) gangs up on them, fails to listen to their fears, and polices who they can listen to on the radio. I feel like both major political parties are feeding off and exacerbating this polarisation so that they can get the votes of each sector of society (Labor from the anti-Jones groups, Liberals from the pro-Jones groups) but that this polarisation is to the net detriment of Australia. I would suggest also that assuming people who listen to Jones are stupid, sexist, ignorant and racist is not a good idea either. Of course it is true that some listeners may exhibit those characteristics. But there may also be genuine bases for certain fears which may be overlooked if you simply write people off as ‘sexist’ and the like without probing more deeply to see what the basis for the fear really is. And surely, if one takes Labor’s traditional background into account, then they should be concerned not only to listen to the concerns of middle-class educated persons such as myself, but also others who are less educated and less privileged, up to and including Jones’ “battlers”. Genuine fears or criticisms which should be at least given some consideration risk being overlooked, simply because they may be expressed in infelicitous terms. Moreover, the best way to change people’s minds is not to tell them they are stupid, but to listen to their fears, and work out whether any part of those fears which may have a basis, and attempt to allay any of those fears which are based on a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge.
The way things are going, my ultimate fear is that we will again see something like One Nation or another form of extremism rise in this country. When you don’t let people have an outlet to speak their fears (whether it be about carbon tax or refugees or whatever) those fears fester, and become ugly. Ideas exposed to the light of day become disinfected. Now, personally, I don’t think Jones is a healthy outlet for those fears (he tends to exacerbate fears rather than speak the voice of reason, and he closes down callers who attempt to inject some sense into the debate, as the transcript of the show which was found to incite the Cronulla riots shows). But the more I think about it, the more I think that any attempt to close Jones down for good may be dangerous and may backfire. It may actually concrete his appeal among his select audience. His audience will think, “Look at the middle class left-wing elites ganging up on him; they are trying to close down our spokesperson, and close down our voices.” The goal is to lessen Jones’ demagogic appeal, not to produce the paradoxical outcome of increasing it and widening gulfs in our society. Thus, I’d advise people who wish to unseat Jones altogether to beware unintended consequences, tread carefully, and remember the Streisand effect (i.e. that attempting to suppress certain information may lead to increased exposure as people flock to see what all the fuss is about).
I think all parties should back away from this kind of polarising, ugly debate. All parties should attempt to resist and reject commentators who make cheap jibing shots at the other side as a way of advancing political dialogue. (Yes, I include the Catherine Devenys of the world with the Alan Joneses here. I am on record as disliking Catherine Deveny‘s approach almost as much as Alan Jones’.) I want our Federal Parliament to consider the issues that matter in a civil and respectful manner. I want our politicians to get on with actually governing our country for the good of all people, and I want them to truly represent those they govern by listening to all sides of the story, not just those who agree with them.