Tuesday, April 17, 2007

OPINION: Fair cop on media ruling, Mr Jones


Twelve years ago, I stepped into barristers’ chambers for the first time. I was impressed by the d├ęcor - all that smoothly varnished timber combined with leather, all built for luxurious tastes. As if barristers wanted to feel like they were working out of a Rolls Royce.

One of my favourite barristers was eventually appointed to the bench. After many years of shouting lunches to junior solicitors, he now presided over a court list, terrorising junior solicitors with threats to strike out entire legal proceedings and order unsuccessful solicitors pay legal costs out of their own pocket.

Did solicitors who used to regularly brief him receive favourable treatment? Is the Pope Muslim?

We’ve read and heard plenty about ACMA’s 80-odd page decision concerning comments made by Alan Jones in the lead-up to the Cronulla riots in December 2005. What sticks out most in my mind is the hubris of the guilty parties.

The Australian cited Alan Jones claiming the head of ACMA ...

... had more jobs than I've had feeds ...
... and that ...

Mr Chapman has gone around this town on many occasions, to me and to others, seeking references to be written for his appointment to a stack of jobs.
John Singleton, head of 2GB, is also quoted as confirming he had a “personal friendship” with Mr Chapman “off the field”.

I don't want to get personal with Chris, I like Chris but he has called on Alan and me for many favours over the years and we've both been forthcoming. So I'm personally disappointed, but maybe he had no legal alternative.
So Alan Jones expects favouritism from the official umpire in return for references rendered. John Singleton wished favours were reciprocated had a legal technicality allowed it.

If I stood up before every ex-barrister judge I had ever briefed and demanded a favourable decision based on the number of briefs given, I’d be struck off the roll of solicitors. And rightly so. Judges are independent arbiters. Independent even of their former paymasters.

Yet in the case of Jones, 2GB and ACMA, we see the Communications Minister effectively threatening to gag the independent watchdog she appointed.

Helen Coonan, herself a former barrister, said:

Alan Jones has made an indelible mark on broadcasting during his long and outstanding career and I encourage the industry to address any concerns that they might have with the current Code with a review to ensure it best reflects community standards.
In other words, Coonan is effectively inviting commercial radio to gang up on ACMA and Mr Chapman should they be unhappy about the outcomes they receive. Especially if the outcomes cost them big dollars.

Yet this same Code was developed by industry in the first place. That’s why it’s called a Code of Practice, not an Act or a Regulation. As a major talk back broadcaster, 2GB would have had plenty of input in developing the Code.

It gets better. Jones names ACMA officials on air and then claims they have ...

... little experience or knowledge of talkback radio.
Yes, of course, Alan. Talk back radio is an esoteric science requiring years of education and training. It’s even harder than coaching rugby or teaching English. Only someone with experience in talk back should be umpire.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest to Minister Coonan that she consider replacing Chris Chapman with a candidate with real experience in talk back radio. Someone like John Laws.

But then, I dare say Mr Jones won’t like Lawsey either. Especially after Laws accused Jones of threatening the PM in 2000 if he didn’t appoint his old friend David Flint as Chair of the broadcasting watchdog.

Or perhaps Jones would like to see Professor Flint returned? No, that is out of the question. What experience does Flint have in talk back radio?

Of course, what this really boils down to is dollars and cents. Jones’ morning rants bring him a large audience. Admittedly, most are over 55. But this is a growing demographic with a lifetime of savings, investments and superannuation.

Advertisers want this market, but also don’t wish to offend their other customers or their staff. I doubt senior company managers from Middle Eastern backgrounds (such as those in Westfield or NAB) would want their advertising budget spent on broadcasters who talk about bikey gangs taking on “Middle Eastern thugs” on the eve of Australia’s worst race riots this century.

Radio stations survive on advertising dollars. Just as small business in Cronulla survive on weekend crowds down at the beach. Your average Cronulla shopkeeper doesn’t mind if the dollars come from Middle Eastern or Anglo-Saxon people. Yet they suffered because certain sentiments were played out both on radio and on the beach, sentiments that they never expressed.

It’s only fair that a Sydney radio station and shock jock suffer a little pain. Alan Jones didn’t have to read offensive and racist e-mails on air. He didn’t have to mention bikey gangs gathering at railway stations. If anything, Jones and 2GB got off lightly. They should cop the effects of the law, just like the rest of us do.

Surely shock jocks of all people wouldn’t want to see anyone get away with breaking the law!

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 17 April 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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