Alan Jones and the hate love-in

Outrage over Alan Jones' comments shows how the line between journalistic impartiality and social media opinion has been blurred. This is the world politicians also play to.

The media world has been ablaze with Alan Jones. In newspapers, on the ABC, on commercial radio and television, Alan Jones has been treated as if what he said at a function for Young Liberals in Sydney was a matter of national, if not international, significance.

He has been a star of social media as well. There, together with an army of citizen journalists, reporters could and did vent about Jones in a way that they could not, it is to be hoped, in the mainstream media where they are employed.

The fact is though that the line between social media and mainstream media is increasingly meaningless as is, I fear, the difference between so-called citizen journalism and professional journalism.

That’s in part because professional journalists are now stars of social media, some of them with Twitter and Facebook followers numbering in the tens of thousands.

The idea that reporters ought not indulge in commentary and personal opinion – once a widespread rule in mainstream media and explicitly stated in the ABC’s codes of practice – is now seen as quaint, old-world, pre-digital nonsense.

When the ABC launched The Drum website, Managing Director Mark Scott said the site would not breach ABC guidelines because the site would feature analysis and not commentary and opinion. The distinction made no sense back then and makes absolutely no sense now.

The Drum is awash with opinion. The Drum seems to me to operate on the basis that every opinion is worthwhile. Everyone deserves to be heard. In other words, it’s more like social media than mainstream media. Anyway, what’s the difference?

So it was that a nasty piece of rubbish from Jones, revved up no doubt by an audience of a couple of hundred feverish supporters egging him on, became a matter of national debate.

His comments about Julia Gillard and her late father were broadcast and re-broadcast, over and over again, printed and re-printed in every newspaper, repeated endlessly on Twitter and Facebook, so that millions of Australians could quote them verbatim.

Many of the people most offended by what Jones said about Gillard, and who are organising a boycott petition, never listen to Alan Jones. Many can’t because Jones broadcasts only in Sydney. And even in Sydney, many of those outraged by the Jones comments never listen to him.

Living in Melbourne, I have no idea what Jones is really like as a broadcaster. Clearly, he has a devoted following and I understand that this following is reasonably elderly. Many, apparently, consider Jones to be a friend and a comfort, a man who confirms them in their views and prejudices. This is the very nature of commercial talk-back radio. It will increasingly be the nature of all media and not just media for the elderly. Mass media is dying. The future of journalism may well be Fox News, by far the most successful cable news network in the US.

Fox News is an opinion and prejudice confirmer. It never ever challenges its audience. No one is expected to change their minds about anything watching Fox News.

In that context, what will be the consequences of the widespread and sustained coverage of Alan Jones in recent days, the effect of the outrage and boycotts and advertisers pulling their advertisements?

(As for the advertisers, pulling ads seems a calculated rather than a sincere response. After all, were they really that surprised and shocked by what Jones had to say about Gillard? Had they not heard about the chaff bag?)

For the people who are regular listeners to Alan Jones and whose views on any number of issues, including the fitness of Julia Gillard to be prime minister, coincide almost totally with the views of Jones it will confirm them in their view that Jones is a victim of left wing elites who want simply to shut him up.

And shut them up too, for Jones speaks for them and to them. They have said as much in talk-back to the Jones program. They took the criticism of Jones personally, as criticism of them.

Just like Jones and his audience, the outraged boycott organisers, the Twitter critics, and the Facebook networkers, their campaign is not designed to change minds. They too are sharing their anger rather than expressing it. It’s a love-in of outrage.

This is the media world in which we now live. And the political world. The rush of Labor politicians to condemn Tony Abbot for the Jones attack on Gillard was relentless, organised, and disciplined – everyone stuck to the agreed talking points.

It was absolutely designed to play well on mainstream digital media and on social media. It was more like a sustained smear than anything approaching a reasoned argument. It was designed to confirm the prejudices, seemingly widespread, that Abbott has a 'problem’ with women in general and with one woman in particular.

It didn’t matter that Abbott in parliament had offered his condolences to Gillard on the death of her father and had said exactly the opposite to Jones. Abbott had said that John Gillard undoubtedly had been proud of his daughter with good reason, for he had been in part responsible for producing Australia’s first female prime minister.

Of course Abbott is not an innocent in all this. For example, his persistent labelling of Gillard as a liar remains shocking and over the top, a sort of dog whistle for people like Alan Jones who have taken the liar label to extremes, to places Abbott would not go.

Abbott has to own the consequences of his language and for the aggression of his attacks on Gillard’s character – dishonest, untrustworthy, a liar – for he is the alternative prime minister.

The Jones episode will be forgotten more or less soon enough. Jones and his audience will huddle even closer together against the hostility of those who they feel despise and denigrate them.

The advertisers will come back because the Jones audience buy their products. The boycott petition will be delivered somewhere and to someone and it too will be forgotten.

No one’s mind, in all likelihood, will have been changed by this heated controversy. The language of politicians won’t change, nor will a ceasefire be called on the personal attacks.

Meanwhile, an army of social media toilers, some professional journalists, some citizen journalists, some just people looking for connections with people like themselves, will be waiting for the next Jones-like eruption.