What kind of grubs

ALAN JONES HAS ANNOUNCED his planned retirement and with his exit from our politics, both NSW and Australia will be a little bit better, a little bit cleaner, a little bit less self-satisfiedly hateful. You will read members of Parliament, celebrities, other members of the press, eulogising his career, paying tribute to a public man, or most predictably of all, describing him as complicated or ambiguous. It's all garbage. The man was uncomplicatedly, straightforwardly, the worst and most toxic public figure of Australia's last half-decade. Our political and cultural life will be better for his absence.

Talkback radio is a technology of the 1920s and 1930s, developed in the USA but spread quickly worldwide, combining a radio transmitter and a telephone switchboard. That's it. It's extremely simple and by now, highly developed. It's the very careful simulation of an audience; obviously all the listeners of a show cannot be callers, the show takes the people who do call in to be representative, even constitutive, of the audience, and that's the show: it's an audience listening to itself by means of the host. At its most successful it's a two-way game, the host and callers engaging in a feedback loop. At its worst it's a nightmarishly cynical whipping-up of prejudices and hatred. Alan Jones' contribution to the medium was to widen that circle of attention and loathing to encompass the rest of the media, the Press Galleries of NSW and the Commonwealth, the focused will of political leaders, and the force of the State.

In 2005 Jones was central to the whipping-up of a race riot in Cronulla, but that disgusting drunken orgiastic beach punch-up was only the culmination, and emblem, of what the politics of NSW and Australia had been becoming for decades. The former Premier Bob Carr's innovation was, in the early 1990s, to use talkback as a central part of governing, in a process now familiar but then new: create a 'yarn', flatter a talkback host, have it become the story, then be seen to respond with a pre-prepared policy solution (what you wanted to do anyway). As talkback became part of the State governing, the rest of the Gallery were forced to integrate it into their reporting, and set the tone for the simulacra of the public that is democracy. In practice, Premiers and MPs and journalists, without genuine access to a public of their own, made the logical step of taking Jonesy's callers to be the public they served. But it's not a focus group, it's a feedback loop. When you put in an argument about road tolls, you get the M4 Cashback. When you put in race hatred, you get groups of young men out for blood.

Biographers are endlessly fascinated by their subjects' contradictions. Jones has many. A public figure who demands, and gets, shameless flattery, but is himself incredibly private in his life. A man of a certain generation who believes in etiquette, courtesy, and treating women with politeness, but who's capable of spitting the most hateful misogyny imaginable into his microphone when a powerful woman disagrees with him. A believer in law and order, the monarchy, and institutions, who was constantly in contempt of court. A well-read, cosmopolitan, urban aesthete who scorns 'elites'. A self-described friend of the battler, and fighter of corporate corruption, who was caught in 1999 taking cash bribes from banks for favourable comment. All true. All irrelevant: it's all just plain old hypocrisy, a sin of which we're all guilty.

He was a bad man who did bad things in a terrible career, making the world a far worse place, and that's all there is to it. Alan Jones' genius was to use a radio show to shape the whole cultural and political life of Sydney, and NSW, to alter the way the State and the country are governed and experienced as a democracy. It wasn't just him: Bob Carr and his beliefless successors across politics must be condemned, and the dust-nosed ghouls of Holt Street and the Daily Telegraph have to wear the contempt of posterity. We have no mass social movements any more, our political Parties are either shells run by LARPers acting out fantasies, or straightforward pyramid schemes, we live prosperous but desperate and atomised lives, and we are forced to imagine ourselves into a public.

Let's take Jonesy's retirement as a chance to shake our heads, look with horror on our mistakes, and say never again.

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Mike · 12 May 2020, 14:37 · #

He won’t really be gone until he’s no longer able to sue for defo, and until we reform that, and get over our love affair with bullies, we’ll just get more like him.

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