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Daily Media Quotation

Our Pollies And The Pushy Parrot

October 24, 2006

Editorial - Canberra Times

As the "king" of talkback radio in Australia, Alan Jones wields the sort of power that makes politicians stop whatever they're doing and answer his calls. Those who decline his invitations sometime have cause to rue their decision. Jones is no mere disc jockey content to use his large audience to pull in influential guests. He uses polemical monologues, or editorials, to push his broadly conservative agenda on whatever issue he considers of importance to those on "struggle street" - the metaphorical home of his audience - and woe betide anyone who he believes is an impediment to his agenda.

John Howard, a firm believer in the power of talkback radio to shape election outcomes, is a frequent guest, as is Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott. Such is his power to overturn political decisions or influence government policy (aided by his tireless networking and lobbying away from the radio microphone, and the threat of on-air criticism) that politicians, especially in NSW, ignore his bully pulpit editorialising at their peril. And he trades on perceptions of his influence and skills of political persuasion to increase his sway over politicians and decision-makers.

A clearer picture of Jones's modus operandi emerged this week with the publication of an unauthorised biography by ABC journalist Chris Masters. The book's troubled birth - the ABC board forced ABC Books into dropping its commitment to publish as a result of defamation fears, only for the manuscript to be picked up by another publisher - is illustrative of Jones's supposed ability to use his wealth, connections and influence to achieve his aims.

The relationship between the media and those who make the news, or their intermediaries, is acutely interdependent, and most media organisations realise the need to erect barriers lest the relationship become incestuous, or worse. The picture that emerges from the Masters book, Jonestown, is of a broadcaster who, through his own vanity or because he was duchessed by the newsmakers themselves, has allowed that distinction to blur the point where many might consider that his professionalism and credibility have been compromised.

Jones has so far escaped the usual fate of those media practitioners revealed to have had ethical lapses. Despite being directly implicated in the cash-for-comment scandal of late 2002 - when he accepted money from Telstra in return for broadcasting favourable comment about the telco's general service standards and corporate performance - Jones's reputation has continued to prosper.

Talkback radio is the perfect medium for the populist commentator, especially those pushing barrows, and Jones has always pushed barrows on behalf of those he believes to have been the victims of government or bureaucratic bungling or indifference or just plain bad luck - though he goes in to bat for the rich and influential as well. Indeed, he has spent his radio career cajoling, lobbying and occasionally threatening people, and using his successes to expand his influence and power, as Jonestown relates. But many Australians will be disturbed to read just how often politicians have given in to those threats and demands. Perhaps the most troubling instance of this concerns Philip Ruddock who, as immigration minister, was badgered repeatedly by Jones acting on behalf of individuals seeking favourable intervention on visa applications.

It is perfectly proper for individuals to lobby ministers of the crown and, of all the federal portfolios, Immigration has traditionally been the busiest in terms of lobbying. According to Masters, however, Jones lobbied Ruddock to intervene in a number of cases, threatening adverse publicity on his program if his demands were not met. Between 1998 and 1999, Masters says, there were about half a dozen cases where visas were issued or given priority by Ruddock after pressure from Jones.

The most notable of these cases involved a German tourist who had been found to be working, contravening his tourist visa, and was about to be deported. Ruddock is alleged to have phoned Jones to reassure him that deportation would be stayed until the case was reconsidered.

Later, a second bridging visa of three months was granted. Ruddock denies the outcome was untoward, but the generosity of the visa has raised eyebrows among immigration lawyers.

Even if, as Masters points out, not all of Jones's lobbying of Ruddock produced the outcomes sought by the broadcaster, the idea that a minister is susceptible to threats of any kind in the performance of his or her duties is a matter of serious concern.

Equally disturbing is the notion that Jones was, in effect, dictating immigration policy.

While many Australians expect broadcasters like Jones to try to push the boundaries, they don't expect their elected representatives, or ministers, to be so readily acquiescent.



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