To hear the flotilla of past and present Liberal Party prime ministers praising Alan Jones on his retirement from radio after 35 years on air, he has been the pre-eminent broadcaster of his generation.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called into Jones’ 2GB program to extol the broadcaster’s honesty – “you’ve always spoken your mind, even to me”,
John Howard lauded his “great skill as a communicator” and Tony Abbott invoked his popularity – “You were the voice of middle Australia”.
Really? Taking the last one first, Jones was never as popular as he and his supporters claimed, especially outside New South Wales.
An attempt by the Ten Network to launch Jones as a nightly national television current affairs personality, in Alan Jones Live in 1994, bombed.
— Shaun Micallef (@shaunmicallef) May 11, 2020
His broadcasting skills were rare but narrow.
Can you remember an interview Jones did where he said less than the interviewee, or where he elicited some new information, which last time I looked was one of the aims of interviewing?
Not surprisingly, a national study of talkback radio found that Jones’ voice occupied 75 per cent of his program’s airtime.
As to honesty, Jones may have always believed fervently what he broadcast, but there have been a litany of instances where what he pronounced was barely on nodding terms with the facts.
Similarly, Mr Howard labelled Jones “the most influential radio broadcaster in the nation”, but Chris Masters, in his award-winning 2006 investigative biography, shows convincingly that the person keenest to promote the idea of Jones’ influence was Jones.
He was certainly influential, but the Jones phenomenon said as much about a succession of supine politicians as it did about the scale of his influence.
Graeme Turner, emeritus professor in media at Queensland University and author of the national study of talkback radio, offers this assessment: “He was a very skilled broadcaster but in a very particular way.
“He could marshal complicated material into a series of points he wanted to make, and then 30 minutes later, present the same points in a different order, which required either careful scripting or a good memory.
“He would repeat the same ideas again and again through his programs, embedding political phrases – slogans really – in his listeners’ minds, to the point where they would ring in and repeat these formulations back to him”.
Professor Turner is scathing, though, of Jones’ regular statements that appeared nasty and personal, whether his claim former Labor PM Julia Gillard’s recently deceased father would have “died of shame” over her behaviour, or that current New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern needed a “sock” shoved down her throat for her views on the need to take action on climate change.
Or his public, contemptuous hectoring of the Sydney Opera House head Louise Herron for her opposition to lighting up the landmark’s sails with jockeys colours to promote The Everest horse race.
Jones may have had problems with women in powerful positions but he was never shy of providing male politicians with a “free character assessment” as used to be the province of former long-time friend, Kerry Packer.
Famously, one of the recipients of this gift, another former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, once bit back, saying he would not take dictation from Jones.
“There should be no place in public discourse for this,” Professor Turner said.
A noxious development for democracy’
Jones has played a role in dissolving the difference between opinions and fact in public discourse, which is ‘‘having a terrible effect on journalism’s watchdog role’’ and is a ‘‘noxious development for democracy’’.
A final anecdote, to illustrate Jones’ modus operandi and how things have changed.
During the infamous cash-for-comment scandal of 1999 in which Jones, among others was accused of accepting large sums of money to spruik various organisations in the guise of editorial comment, Jones would arrive each day at the Australian Broadcasting Authority hearings brimful of smiling confidence only to be shredded inside under the withering cross-examination of Julian Burnside QC.
The TV cameras, though, were not allowed inside the hearings.
What they recorded was Jones’s confident demeanour at the start and end of each day.
At the time it seemed there was no proper accountability for what were serious matters of propriety, and for many years it seemed that no matter how many times Jones was the subject of complaints, few meaningful consequences followed.
That has changed in recent years, both through a successful defamation action brought by the Wagner family in Queensland over comments Jones made about their role in the 2011 Grantham floods that cost him and 2GB’s owner $3.7 million in damages, and through influential campaigns by social media groups to persuade advertisers to boycott Jones’ program over his derogatory comments about women.
Jones’ departure from radio means his influence on Australian public life is diminished – by how much exactly depends on the extent to which you believe his assessment of his power on radio.
Regardless, he still has outlets for his views at newspapers and television programs owned by News Corporation Australia.
So, depending on your view of Jones, look forward to that, or run headlong into the night.
Matthew Ricketson, professor of communication at Deakin University, is an academic and former journalist with The Age, The Australian and Time Australia.