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Shock-Jock Democracy

An article by Paul Kelly in The Australian on March 3, 2001 is worth reading for its discussion of the influence of talkback comperes on commercial radio.

Kelly argues that the policy reversals of the Howard government during this week is “the purest victory so far for direct democracy.”

Following the trouncing meted out to the coalition parties in the Western Australian and Queensland elections, the Federal government has cut petrol excise by 1.5 cents/litre and abolished the twice-yearly indexation of petrol excise.

Kelly claims that talkback commentators, such as Neil Mitchell on Melbourne’s 3AW, have been campaigning on petrol prices for some time now:

“Most of the jocks around Australia have whacked on about petrol for six months. The savagery of their language not only reflects the anger within the community – it magnifies and inflames that anger. They manipulate the outrage.”

Kelly quotes at length from Mitchell’s program, for example on August 25, 2000:

“This is what you can do to change petrol prices. Good morning. This is the sound of the phone in the office of Peter Costello ringing. You should ring him and every other federal government politician in Victoria to tell them you’ve had enough … I thing we’ve got to mobilise, move ourselves and change the world. We need slogans, we need phone-ins, we need fax attacks… I can’t remember a reaction of such strength, and it is focused directly on petrol prices. The magic dollar a litre has guaranteed that … We have the power. We have the power. There is this huge army of people just ready to act … My view is now the focus has to be on the federal Government … to stop the greed, to cut back the tax grab … Politicians hate political pressure … ’cause it could cost them the big white cars. Heavens, they might have to start paying for their own petrol, and they are the villains in this. No matter what they say, it’s the politicians and their greed.”

Kelly says:

“There was once a time when public opinion was mobilised at street rallies, town halls, from the pulpit or around the trades hall. Forget it. Radio jocks are the new mobilisers and organisers of mass opinion.”

The article also discusses similar activities by Paul Murray of Perth’s 6PR.

Kelly claims the radio jocks responded to Howard’s retreat by damning it with faint praise and twisting any truth to maintain the rage:

“Listen to Mitchell yesterday. ‘We’ve won,’ he declared. But the reversal meant that Howard and Costello have ‘lost their credibility. It has gone totally.’ Howard’s retreat, Mitchell declared, exposed the ‘absolute garbage they tolf us [before]’. They had peddled ‘scare nonsense’ about schools or hospitals or pensions being affected if they cut petrol tax. Mitchell said Howard had ‘huge tax windfalls’ and was only giving back the money he ‘should never have taken from us’. Mitchell said there should be a freeze on excise indexation for beer and cigarettes. Ah, welcome to the lotus land.”

Kelly predicts that world oil prices will fall later this year “and the jocks will savage Howard as the economy falters and the budget weakens partly as a consequence of the decision they demanded.”

Kelly concludes:

“Remember: Howard is an idiot, and Keating a black-hearted boil. They’re one and the same. If Beazley wins, he’ll be the next villain and idiot. The jocks delegitimise the politicians to build their own credibility and ratings. Remember: all demagogues claim to speak for the people.”

Footnote: An article by Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 3, 2001 discusses the true situation regarding petrol excises over the past 25 years.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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