What power should social media have?

By October 11, 2012Media, Politics, Society

I wasn’t going to write about the Alan Jones story, but it has widened, and I’ve changed my mind. I’m not much of an admirer of talkback radio, and one reason is that I had an unpleasant experience on it. In 1987, during the Hawke Government, the Coalition set up a ‘Wastewatch’ Committee to look at all the awful, wasteful things the government was doing. One of the targets was the list of grants that my Minister, then Barry Jones, had approved for research projects recommended by the Australian Research Grants Committee. John Laws had a field day with it, and his approach is very similar to that used by Alan Jones about other matters (I’m sure Jones would have done the same with the research projects).

Here is John Laws, in full talkback flight on the morning of 10 March 1987. I recorded it, and transcribed the program myself:

‘Now some of the grants will make you shudder. Some of the grants will make you absolutely furious ….How are you doing out there? Are you hungry? Have your kids got shoes? Listen to this. “The Socio-Environmental Impact of Road Signs…”‘

It was terrible, trivial stuff, pandering to the anti-intellectual streak in the Australian psyche. Laws couldn’t even read straight, for the project he mentioned was about the fact that no one took much responsibility for roadsides, which in 1987 covered an area in Victoria larger than all that State’s national parks put together.

I went on one such program (I don’t think it was his) arguing with Michael Baume, the Wastewatch chairman, and felt all the time that I was on a hiding to nothing, not because I had a weak case, but because the host of the program could, and did, simply cut me off when he wanted to. After it, I resolved never to go on such a program again.

Having got that off my chest, and making it clear that Alan Jones occupies for me a familiar and detestable spot in our media, I nonetheless will strongly defend his right to say what he wants to say. No one has to listen to it, and I am confident that less than one per cent of those who signed the viral petition had ever listened to him, or ever would. What is more, there are legal remedies for anyone who believes that he or she has been defamed on such a program. This is a diverse society, and diversity has to mean that your society includes people who say things of which you disapprove. I think you have to put up with that, just as people who don’t like homosexuals have to put up with the fact that they are allowed to be who they are, and in time, to effect legal marriages with one another  (for I am sure that will come).There are also laws about inciting race hatred and being offensive in racial terms. I’m not sure that I approve of the latter laws, as it happens, but they are there. If a shock-jock goes too far down any of those paths he or she can be brought to book.

But I don’t like censorship, of any kind. And while I think the email petition was successful, it seems to me very much akin to shutting someone up because you don’t like what he says. Yes, it wasn’t exactly that. It was a kind of threat to the the sponsors of the show that if they didn’t dissociate themselves from the Jones program, the signers would stop buying their products. The radio station has continued the show, and is effectively supporting it from other sources of income. How long it will do that remains to be seen.

The petition came to me, and I let it go to Trash. I’m sure those who generated it, and those who signed, thought they were doing a good thing, and possibly even a public service. I disagree. You need to think hard before you do things like that. The same weapon can be used against yourself. As someone who has written publicly for nearly fifty years, I am sensitive to any attempt to prevent people from speaking out, because I can see that it can be used against me, too.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Fay Thomson says:

    That is a good piece that Don wrote about social media and the Alan Jones fuss. At the time I considered myself lucky that I had a hearing problem.
    “It was all trivial stuff , pandering to the anti-intellectual streak in the Australian psyche” wrote the professor. Exactly how I felt and I got on with attention to my website, Art Toppling Tobacco , a competition/project to do damage to the tobacco industry – a much more worthwhile matter for Australians to be considering.

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