“Alan Jones, on your radio program, you often abuse, berate and belittle callers with whom you disagree. On Q&A, you are reasoned and respectful of the people asking questions, to the extent that I sometimes think you’re not as bad as you’d like us to think. Is your radio persona pure entertainment and, if so, who is the real Alan Jones, and do you believe that you are using your platform in a responsible way that encourages constructive debate?” Anthony Johnsen, Q&A 20th July
This thorny bugger of a question was thrown to conservative radio shock jock Alan Jones on Monday night’s Q&A, much to the squeamish displeasure of the recipient. Jones was on the offensive, claiming his trademark fiery exchanges which only occur with politicians, not with listeners. That may be true, but having previously said Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame” and she should be taken out in a body bag and dumped in the ocean, there is little doubt that Jones’ 2GB studio is not a place for “reasoned and respectful” discussion. The former Labor PM is not alone in copping Jones’ abuse, with independent MPs Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, Liberal leadership challenger Malcolm Turnbull and even Prime Minister Tony Abbott all copping a verbal bashing.
It has been somewhat of a surprise then that Jones’ appearances on Q&A have shown a different side to the infamous orator, far less “angry old man yelling at cloud” and far more at home aside the more measured voices that the show attracts. The issues he champions on Q&A are also more nuanced and interesting than the grand-stand reading of the Coalition’s briefing notes on 2GB. Furthermore, on all platforms, Jones seems to have complicated his political vision since his days heading up the “Juliar” campaign, from his embrace of same-sex marriage to his campaign against coal-seam gas. So why is he suddenly almost reasonable, or has he always been so underneath his conservative blustering?
The more sceptical observer might call Jones an opportunist, a savvy chameleon giving the audience what they want to hear. On talkback radio they want rage, on the ABC they want rational discussion. Such inconsistency is frequently attributed to fellow conservative kingpin Andrew Bolt. Whilst he is generally as stubbornly right-wing on all platforms nowadays, claims of inconsistency plague his past and cast doubt on the uncompromising caricature he now propagates.
In a scathing portrait of Bolt for The Monthly, Anne Summers presented a convincing argument that Bolt refashioned himself in the 1990s to fill what was then a right-wing void in the op-ed pages. Whilst she doesn’t doubt that Bolt was somewhat conservative, she questions the authenticity of his miraculous transformation from unassuming editor to megaphone commentator. And with due course, given News Corp’s chief Gillard-hater used to work for the ALP in several positions. The nation’s great climate denier also once wrote the “Environs” section in The Age.
Summers quotes a former colleague saying “A big part of me admires Bolt for having built all this out of nothing. But it is so cynical because that is not who he is.” “He obviously saw there was reputation and money to be made from being conservative,” said academic Robert Manne. “He was forceful but he was not as right-wing then or we would not have got on so well,” said journalist Shelley Gare.
This touches upon a deeper point about the now popularized far-right provocateur mould – to what extent do they actually believe what they say? There should be nothing beyond comprehension about adopting a conservative worldview, in fact if one cannot even imagine it then perhaps they are too rigid to engage in a diverse contest of ideas. However, the sheer vociferousness, the attack-dog style, the relentless plundering of issues for literally thousands of media segments and the offensiveness of some dialogue invites the cynical to suggest they are making a calculated decision to feed the desires of a niche audience, to deliberately provoke the mass audience and to stay relevant through remaining controversial.
All which makes the faintly shifting stripes of Alan Jones more interesting. He is no lefty and there is no room for him in the centre. He has fashioned himself as a conservative warrior. There is no popularity or money in providing nuance to an argument in the modern media melee. So Jones ought to be commended for not sticking to the tired old trope of the Andrew Bolt right-winger, and occasionally veering off his ideological course, even if only briefly.
Perhaps he should take a second look at wind farms. Yeah never know, he might be surprised by what he sees.