In Defence of Alan Jones

In defence of Alan Jones

By Sarah Joseph, Monash University

AAP Image/Warren Clarke

So, Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones has disgraced himself with his appallingly tasteless and hurtful comment, recorded at a recent Sydney University Liberal club dinner, that the late John Gillard “died of shame” over his daughter Julia. He compounded the ignominy with his bizarre 45 minute “apology” on Sunday. His comments have led to an explosion of justified schadenfreude by the many people who lament his shtick, a tiresome combination of hate, misogyny and misinformation. Politicians, media figures, and thousands and thousands of “ordinary folk” on social media have expressed outrage at his comments. Numerous ALP figures have finally decided that they will no longer indulge him with appearances on his show.

A prominent manifestation of this outrage is an online petition, calling for Radio 2GB to sack Alan Jones, which has attracted over 100,000 signatures. It and similar campaigns have convinced many companies to remove their sponsorship from Jones’ program. Of course, the advocates of these campaigns have every right to run them: they, like Jones, have a right of free speech. But while I am no fan of Jones’ nasty oeuvre, I am not sure that these campaigns are positive developments for discourse in Australia.

Let us put these campaigns into perspective. 100,000 + signatures does not equal Jones’ reported audience. And it takes a lot more effort to listen to his show than it does to sign an online petition or like a facebook page. Sure, many sponsors have pulled advertising. But they may have simply moved them to 2GB’s other shows, which include the equally charming Ray Hadley. Some sponsors have announced they are “suspending” advertising, perhaps signalling a return to the fray once the controversy dies down. Finally, Jones is an equity holder at 2GB, so the chances of it sacking him are minimal to nil.

But what if the campaign succeeds? Are we really getting to a stage where a default reaction to an outrageous comment is that “something must be done”, in particular a person should be shut down and taken off the air? Are the campaigners really saying that Alan Jones’ show, which they do not listen to, simply should not exist?

What about the wishes of Alan Jones’ listeners and their tastes? Wouldn’t a better strategy be to use his outrageous comments to convince his listeners that they should stop listening? Would it not be better to try to diminish their number with the power of argument, rather than to seek to deprive them of “their” guy because “we” don’t like his message? What if “they” did the same thing? One can’t be sure that one will always be on the “socially acceptable” side of the barricades in the likely free speech battles that Jones’ removal might prompt.

Jones’ power is over-exaggerated. He has a large audience, but it covers a relatively narrow demographic. It would be a more ignominious fate for Jones to continue his slide in the ratings into ludicrous irrelevance, shouting into the void, rather than to be made a martyr by being “hounded” off the air while his ratings remain high. Let him self-destruct, like Glenn Beck in the US.

And while one can bemoan the lack of diversity in Australia’s newspaper market, the same is not true of radio. Melbourne in particular has thriving community radio stations. Alan Jones’ ilk clearly doesn’t impress Melbournians, with shock-jock stable MTR dying a ratings death earlier this year. For whatever reason, some Sydneysiders are impressed with that stuff. The removal of Jones due to campaigns by his ideological opponents wouldn’t, I expect, reduce that apparent appetite for shock jocks. And the digital revolution means that the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum is no longer an issue: Jones’ use of airwaves doesn’t crowd out a more worthy participant.

One is of course free to boycott Jones’ remaining advertisers, though I am doubtful that a large percentage of those who have signed the petition will do so. The campaign against the sponsors does however raise interesting issues, as noted obliquely by Todd Sampson on the Gruen Transfer on Wednesday night. Do we want to entrench the idea that private companies are the guardians of what is and what is not allowable speech? I wrote about this in a previous post in regard to social media companies. And certainly, MacQuarie Radio is a private company that owns 2GB and has the power to sack Jones, just as Fairfax Media’s 3AW has recently sacked Derryn Hinch. But do we want that power extended to companies like Freedom Furniture and Hyundai, who have both dropped the Jones program and who can be expected to have zero expertise in the “acceptable speech” arena?

Maybe this concern is naïve. Advertisers already exercise enormous power over broadcast speech. The Jones campaigns may be a positive development in at least injecting an overlay of citizen input, particularly via social media, into the exercise of that power. However, corporate advertising power over speech, in my view, is something that should be discouraged. Rather than encouraging and therefore legitimising the practice, social media is probably better used to call out corporations when they use their advertising power to censor.

Sarah Joseph does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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9 comments

  • Why should Jones be excluded? Tiger Woods lost endorsements for having extra-marital affairs, Josh from the x-factor was removed from the show for his actions, sports people lose endorsements if they do something that the company endorsing them believes they don’t want associated with them or their products and they are entirely within their right to do so. At the end of the day it is the company and their reputation that they are thinking of. The companies’ choice to remove sponsorship for Jones it has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the bottom line.

    • Thanks Jami,

      Of course sponsors can withdraw sponsorship whenever they want (depending in contracts). I’d say that here, though, at least some withdrew after lobbying from others rather than because they particularly wanted to.

      It may be esoteric but I do have concerns over sponsors & advertisers owning & therefore controlling messages. I think that is a “free speech issue” if not necessarily a “violation” of free speech. I don’t particularly care that sponsors dropped Woods over infidelity (though I found the fuss over that to be extraordinary – he plays golf, why do I care if he has affairs?). But what if they’d dropped him coz he made a political statement – eg came out in favour of same sex marriage or even against abortion? Sure, they have the “right” to but I find that disturbing, even if inevitable & maybe unstoppable. I don’t like the idea that the ideas expressed in the commercial sphere (which is huge, encompassing all privately owned papers, mags, TV, radio) might be filtered by what is acceptable to advertisers. I’m not sure advertisers/sponsors should be encouraged to pay more rather than less attention to content.

      Please do feel free to look at my replies to others, which further expand upon these ideas.

  • Sarah, thank you for your response. I continue to think you are fundamentally confused. The worry you raise about the online response to Alan Jones – that it might be used for purposes one does not agree with – is exactly the ‘worry’ about free speech itself.
    Because it is free speech.

    It is simply potential consumers choosing to provide feedback about corporate sponsorship. Free speech isn’t to be defended just when it promotes one’s own views, but all the time. If this kind of campaign were directed against someone whose politics I supported, I would argue against it, but I would not see as an attack on free speech. Alan Jones has a right to free speech, he doesn’t have any ‘right’ to sponsored speech, and nor does anyone else.. It has nothing to do with rights, and everything to do with perceived commercial advantage. There is no reason why individuals should not add their voice to shaping that perception. Alan Jones has enjoyed an immensely privileged position in shaping public perception in service of an agenda for decades. For him, or anyone else, to cry ‘threat to free speech’ when the favour is returned is absurd.

    If you don’t agree with the campaign against Jones, that is your right. But is profoundly misleading for a human rights lawyer to publish essays that invoke terms such as ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘censorship’ in this context. Censorship is not the same thing as refusing to pay a speaker for speech you do not wish to be associated with. Simple as that.

    Speech can be used to promote good or evil, so can online campaigns.In what way, in even the slightest degree, does the ‘danger’ you seek to point out differ from the danger of free speech as such? I don’t believe you can answer that, because there is no essential difference.

    • Bill, I take the point that the “shutdown argument” is just free speech vs free speech. Fine. In which case I think it’s problematic if we develop a default posi of wanting to shut down speech we don’t like rather than argue against it & “win” in the marketplace of idea.

      By the way, of you look the terms “free speech” & censorship are used infrequently, the latter in a particular context discussed below.

      You seem to indicate that free speech has nothing to do with the commercial media. As if it only relates to a soapbox speech and maybe the ABC. I disagree.

      I am not saying that the campaign is censoring Jones. After all it hasn’t. I am saying that the targeting of the sponsors could prompt more intervention by advertisers in this & other contexts to censor, even off their own bat without any prompting. It is that type of censorship which is imv problematic.

    • To expand, Bill

      One could say, as you do, that there is no right to corporate sponsorship. The flipside of that is that corporations sponsor who what and when they like, even though we know that has inevitable impacts on what is or is not broadcast. The ABC can only pick up so much of the slack.

      That’s fine and I am OK with that when the sponsorship is based on commercial considerations, eg ratings. It ain’t pretty, coz some excellent stuff doesn’t get an audience and some crappy stuff gets a really big audience, but that is capitalism. One could say the sponsors are pulling out from Jones because of commercial reasons, ie to avoid a boycott or reputational damage leading to lost profits. Fine. Some even seem genuinely disgusted and maybe doing it off their own bat, like Mercedes.

      But therein, for me, lies the rub. While I can bear Mercedes’ decision here, the idea of advertisers making content-bsaed judgments on the media they will sponsor, especially for moral reasons, makes me shudder a bit (eg Mercedes being disgusted with Jones, the Chrysler situation I spoke of before). It worries me that advertisers have so much power over the media we consume (eg the series, The Newsroom, is alluding to this at the moment). Sure there is public media, or community media, but commercial media has an extraordinarily powerful impact on public discourse. And advertisers exercise so much control over what is and is not in that media – so I think yes, that is at the very least, a “free speech” issue, or, if you like, an issue of “access to information” – ie rights of audience if not speaker. If one thinks that “free speech” is only relevant in protecting us from governments, I think that is a valid but impoverished view of free speech and access to information in this age dominated by private globalised commerce. It would for example concede to Facebook the right to purge pages as it wishes, with “free speech” being no legitimate complaint in response.

      Bringing this back to Jones, yes he is a powerful figure. And the idea of the powerful pulling the rug out from the powerful is refreshing. And as this has been prompted in large part by a social media campaign (which I concede is an exercise of free speech, and I say so in the blog), maybe it is great that there is a sheen of “people power” on the advertisers’ withdrawal (again, as I say in my piece). But it COULD just further entrench and normalise the censoring power of advertisers. Jones today, Carlton tomorrow etc etc. When I’d probably prefer advertisers out the business of making content-based free speech decisions.

      Maybe this concern is too esoteric. Maybe it is naive and the horse bolted long ago (though I think social media may be a way of leveraging against this type of corporate power). Maybe there are so many advertisers that it doesn’t matter if there’s a Chrysler out there (though it does matter a lot if one is a small fish, like Online Opinion). But at the very least I see it as an issue that does in fact pertain to free speech. And, as I say in the blog, wouldn’t it be great if social media could be used to stop such censorship rather than encourage it. Because if it is used to encourage it, more things are going to be censored. Including things we don’t want censored.

      Finally, you say that I am only pointing out a danger in a particular exercise of free speech, in my concern over dangerous precedents. True. And what is wrong with that – I am exercising my right of free speech to point out flaws in a campaign. If it actually succeeded in the apparent aim of driving Jones off air, that would be extraordinary. And I think it could have a damaging precedent effect, leading to more campaigns to shut down commentators that groups don’t like.

      Anyway. Those are my reasons. We will have to agree to disagree – I am certainly not conceding that I am confused. I am also on holiday as of this minute, so I won’t be responding to any more comments for a while. Cheers

  • I’d be very interested to know any precedent for equating the right to free speech with a right to uninterupted corporate sponsorship for an individual. The more I think about your argument, the more it astounds me !

  • I believe you are, indeed, being very naive. Are you implying that the right to free speech has anything to do with the privilege of corporate sponsorship? It has nothing do with ‘rights’ but everything to do with power and profit. Jones has enjoyed immense power to influence politicians in this country for decades. That power is based on his perceived ability to sway public opinion as measured by ratings. This is also the basis for his ability to attract massive corporate. sponsorship. Ratings, however, are a relatively restricted measure, since they only tell politicians and advertisers how association with a broadcaster might be judged by those who already count themselves as listeners. We have seen social media spontaneously generate a much broader, intensely focussed form of feedback than has previously been possible. This is itself a manifestation of free speech. I cannot see any reason why you, by contrast, would equate freedom of speech with rights to corporate sponsorship. It seems completely incoherent. The first is democratic right, that no one has tried to take away from Jones, the second is a commercial privilege which thousands of potential consumers have chosen to question. Why on earth should a broadcaster’s access to corporate sponsorhsip be considered more sacrosanct than the right to free speech exercised by consumers in providing feedback to corporate sponsors? You have completely missed what is at stake here.The real conflict here is between the monological power of broadcasting announcers and the spontaneous and uncontrollable feedback allowed by the internet. Free speech in action, not a threat to it.

    • Dear Bill,

      The article raises 2 concerns re campaigns against Jones. On both counts, however, I recognise that the protagonists have rights to run their campaigns (eg petition to try to shut him down + boycotting sponsors). They are of course free to do this. What I am doing is questioning the desirability of doing so for 2 reasons.

      1. Whether it really is a good thing for there to be a default response of “we are outraged. shut him down” as opposed to “he is outrageous. Stop listening because of that”. I feel this sort of campaign, if it is successful (which is unlikely for reasons given in the blogpost), could backfire as it could become the default reaction to speech people find very offensive. As an avid user of social media, I can assure you there are all sorts of complaints of offensive stuff out there (sometimes in circumstances where I don’t personally find the thing being complained about offensive). Again, people can run whatever campaigns they like (they have a right to do so) – that doesn’t mean the campaign is a good idea. Online Opinion, a much much smaller fish than Jones, was the subject of a campaign against its sponsors and nearly had to shut down. I don’t know the exact details but I think it concerned a post which was against same sex marriage. OO publishes pieces across the spectrum of opinion, so I found that campaign quite serious. While Jones may be a deserving target, not everyone will be. I do not know if that campaign was run on social media or some other way – the medium is irrelevant except that these days, the easiest way of running such a campaign is social media (and probably the only way of remotely threatening the position of someone like Jones).

      2. My concern re the sponsors is different. I don’t care if people boycott them – again people can do what they like. There are a few companies I don’t buy off for various reasons. Whatever.

      Corporate advertisers do have enormous censoring power, which I presume they use a lot. I first thought about this in the 90s when there was a story about Chrysler threatening to pull advertising from some magazine coz the latter published a pro-gay story (can’t remember of what sort). Personally, I find that disturbing. I was reminded of it when Todd made his comment on Gruen Planet. Maybe such power is inevitable and cannot be stopped, which means that social media campaigns of this sort are good coz they add citizen input into these decisions (as I say in the last para). But, as I also say, maybe social media (a relatively new player) could provide a space to put pressure on companies to cease this practice. Pie in the sky and naive maybe, … but just making a point.

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