Jonestown’s mass succour
Against some expectations I find myself writing another critical report on broadcaster Alan Jones, which again will make no difference to an extraordinary trajectory of power.
Those close to Jones often observe that what does not kill him indeed makes him stronger.
He survived being exposed as a plagiarist in August 1990; a finding by the Australian Communications and Media Authority following the 2005 Cronulla riots, that he was likely to have incited violence; and a boycott of radio station 2GB after suggesting then prime minister Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame”.
You would think the 1999 cash-for-comment saga alone, when he was caught receiving payments for presenting advertising as news, would be a career-death experience. But if anything, Jones’s stocks rose. Two years later a new multimillion-dollar contract was struck to the accompaniment of more ratings wins.
Early in his radio career Alan Jones revealed an ambition to become prime minister. Along the way his loyal audience has regularly encouraged the notion, but these days I doubt Jones would accept the demotion.
Because when he sits down with leaders legitimately anointed via the ballot box, it can be hard to mistake who is boss. And he does not mind insinuating this political dynamic to his audience.
Take, for example, the contretemps with former state premier Campbell Newman over expanded coalmining at Jones’s birthplace, Acland in Queensland. He claimed the then premier had gone back on a promise made on a visit to Jones’s home before the 2012 election. Note the inclusion of the address. Jones does not go to them. In godfather fashion, they come to him.
Home for Jones could be a range of addresses. While he can’t boast a property portfolio as large as fellow Oxford graduate and Worcester College alumnus Rupert Murdoch, the same perfected process of government by media seems to apply. For decades now, elected leaders have dragged their heels to Murdoch retreats such as Cruden Farm outside Melbourne or Cavan near Canberra.
When Jones holds court it might be at his New South Wales Southern Highlands estate or more likely the Macquarie Street block known as the Toaster, across the forecourt from Sydney’s Opera House. They will be chauffeured discreetly via the underground car park and lift to Jones’s harbour-view apartment and greeted by the butler, a former employee of the royal family.
Some of the victims, and some of Jones’s former staff, paint a morbid picture of what happens next. Refreshments are offered and the toasting begins. As on air, Jones hectors, lectures and barely listens. One former premier, venting to me afterwards, called it bullying.
Jones’s ideas and principles might be disorganised and even contradictory, but when it comes to self-belief he holds nothing back. Witnesses are dumbstruck wondering why they cop it. Why they don’t call his bluff.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt is the latest to submit to Jones, promising a review of scientific evidence that supported federal government approval of the Shenhua coalmine in the Liverpool Plains region of NSW. As with the Acland deal, Jones has a local connection, having lived at Quirindi in the 1970s.
That bollocking followed an earlier backdown over a nursing home development in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. For months, Jones had railed against Hunt on air after approval was granted for a private aged-care home on government land. “Are you going to resign today, or pull this deal off? Which?” he asked. And: “I can’t let you lie to my listeners.”
But soon after, he spoke of discussions with Hunt and others during his holidays, hinting to listeners of a prospective turnaround. In May 2015, approval was revoked. The promoter, Middle Head Healthcare, was left “devastated and completely perplexed”.
The geography this time captured Tony Abbott as well as Alan Jones. The prime minister’s Warringah electorate takes in Mosman as well as Manly, where Jones coached rugby in the 1980s. During the nursing home campaign, Jones claimed the original green lighting of the development threatened Abbott’s seat.
Jones and Abbott have more than the usual history shared when politics and media intersect. In my book Jonestown, Abbott and neighbouring parliamentarian Bronwyn Bishop are revealed as charter members of Jones’s self-proclaimed “pick and stick” club.
When Jones launched an ill-fated television talk show in 1994, Bishop was his first guest. Alan seemed to glimpse a reinvention of another hero, Margaret Thatcher. In turn, a reviewer saw his choice as “impossible to forgive”.
When Jones moved to 2GB in 2002 his first political guest was Abbott. When researching thickets of correspondence between Jones and politicians, the Abbott exchanges stood out. The minister appeared to do more than listen. He acknowledged Jones had much to teach him and his department. A member of Jones’s staff, observing them together, confirmed what is evident in the correspondence: Tony Abbott is not simply a political contact, he is a reverential admirer.
The feeling is mutual. Following February’s leadership spill motion, according to The Australian Financial Review, Jones was on the phone to backbenchers making a robust case for Abbott’s retention.
Looking on, I can’t help wondering whether there is a lot of Jones in the way Abbott runs the country. Those captain’s picks – calling on Bishop to be speaker, for example – seem very Alan. If no direct influence was brought to bear, you can still see the “leaders should lead” and “never sit on the fence” approach as a channelling of Jones, which was also apparent in Bishop’s blatant partisanship as speaker.
Not that they all crawl to him. Last week Andrew Robb’s temper slipped when defending Australia’s trade deal with China, casting Jones’s opposition into the chorus of what the trade minister described as a racist scare campaign.
Last year Malcolm Turnbull famously took on Jones. After Turnbull was seen dining with an Abbott critic, Clive Palmer, Jones interviewed the communications minister, beginning by asking him to declare allegiance to Abbott. It was riveting radio.
Turnbull: “Alan, I am not going to take dictation from you.”
Jones, later: “You have no hope ever of being the leader. You have got to get that into your head.”
Somewhere into the barney with Turnbull, Jones laid into the ABC, citing a catalogue of sins such as the Q&A program being “dominated by left-wingers and you”. In February 2015, when Jones appeared on Q&A and the Turnbull leadership proposition was again raised, I thought I glimpsed true fear. It would be his worst nightmare to have a Turnbull in Canberra taking no notice of him, alongside a moderate Liberal leader in NSW. Mike Baird is a popular and skilful communicator not reliant on Jones’s imprimatur in the way of many predecessors.
So, to get back to the question, why do they bow to a person with such a spotty reputation – a failed political candidate who demonstrated long ago that he has not the discipline to survive as an elected official, yet one who stands in judgement?
The wicked problem goes beyond Jones to the rest of us. Politicians have a blind spot when dealing with media. They are courteous, not because they like or respect us, but because we are a portal to the public.
With Jones in particular there is no upside in opposing him, unless the contest plays out beyond the perimeter of his audience, as was the case when he slurred Gillard’s father.
Just lately, the current prime minister has also shown himself at odds with his friend. Jones, as he did with Hunt, laid down the gauntlet over the proposed Shenhua coalmine, which Abbott defends. “Quite frankly,” Jones said, “Tony Abbott and Michael Baird are going to have to understand that governments rise and fall, sometimes, on a single issue.”
There have been other disagreements. The prime minister, if rather weakly, stood up for vilified footballer Adam Goodes. Jones, as should be no surprise, sided with the baying mob.
Attacks on Liberals
To those who wonder whether Jones might have undergone some kind of ideological conversion by embracing the environment and turning on his own side, the answer is no. There is plenty of history to show Jones offside with the Liberals. Former Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell was one of many to endure his wrath. “When going on the Alan Jones breakfast program,” he told me, “we knew on occasions we would be on a hiding to nothing.”
O’Farrell recalls Jones getting stuck in to him over a different mining issue. The premier was struggling to get his message up in response and was relieved to see the clock edging towards the 7.30 news. “He finished at eight to eight,” O’Farrell laughs, assuring me “it was never personal”.
You could see Jones’s peripatetic allegiances as worthy of fourth-estate principles of accountability. You could see the blistering confrontations as healthy tests of leadership competency. He regularly shows up conventional media by attending to issues too often neglected – and by getting results.
But about there, the credit runs out. Jones’s side of politics can get a tougher time from him because they allow him so much room to meddle. The leverage obtained from his advocacy is then used to strengthen personal control.
Beyond Sydney in particular, conservatives are wondering about his assaults on a range of developments, which undermine pro-business principles. They puzzled when he lined up against their man in Queensland, in a contest that appeared less ideological and more like a naked power struggle. I have long said Jones, a failed Liberal candidate, has more enemies in his own camp because they know him better.
Privately some are admitting this. As usual, it is hard to get anyone to go on the record about Jones. Off the record, a minister says: “You have to remember it is all about Alan. It is the Alan Jones show, not the Tony Abbott show.” This minister says the “extraordinary affection” the prime minister has for the broadcaster is lamented as “boxing him into weak positions”. Abbott’s lack of leadership over Bronwyn Bishop’s improper use of entitlements and the booing of Goodes is described as “demeaning”.
What we see now is the coming of the hour when there is no choice but to defy Jones, who will not give equal time to the case for mining. In championing his research above government science, Alan’s trick is to sound studious. But think, how much time has a shock jock for finer detail? On another Q&A appearance, this time supporting coal-fired power over wind energy, Jones parroted prepared research that was wildly wrong.
What has happened with Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt and Andrew Robb has happened many times before. By my observation, the broadcaster is less likely to take a position on principle or even politics as much as on personality and power. Jones needs to do more than shape policy. He needs to win before his own constituency, that diaspora of believers from Acland, Quirindi, Mosman and beyond.
Abbott should know shock jocks profit from controversy and divisiveness. Jones can easily process criticism from what I am sure is a majority of disbelievers, seeing he is loved because he is great and he is hated because he is great.
Unlike shock jocks, prime ministers are held to account for poor judgement. Prime ministers are supposed to govern for all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Jonestown’s mass succour". Subscribe here.