When two tribes go to war

Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes speaks to Peter Saxon about why Alan Jones provides so much material for Media Watch

I enjoy Media Watch. Perhaps because I haven’t been on it…yet. So it was with some trepidation that I typed up the transcript of this interview with its host, Jonathan Holmes.

What if he doesn’t like it? Will he and his team of snoops pore through the archives of radioinfo and discover the innumerable errors of my punctuation and syntax? I’ve never quite grasped the correct usage of the apostrophe in “it’s.”  Oh the shame of having my grammatical sins splashed across the ABC screen.

What prompted me to set up this interview in the first place was a report in The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago that Ray Hadley was threatening to sue Media Watch for defamation. Since then, events have overtaken that piece of news and most of our chat centred around Alan Jones and the fallout from his remarks about the Prime Minister’s late father.

The interview, itself, was conducted last Wednesday and indeed Mr Holmes observations about advertiser support may have been different had he foreseen the depth of the exodus and the unprecedented act by 2GB of pulling all the remaining ads out of the Alan Jones program which will cost the station an estimated half million dollars per week.

radioinfo: Ray Hadley says that someone inside the Media Watch office told him that members of your staff were “out to get him.” And that he would sue Media Watch. Did that affect you when you read it in the paper? 

Holmes: Not much, I mean it was a pretty empty threat. And I suspect that Ray knew it was. I actually get on alright with Ray. As he said on that tirade, he and I exchange perfectly polite emails and are perfectly courteous to each other.

But he did have this spy in the office, as he said.  And we discovered it was almost certainly a casual that was working for the sports department which was just over the partition from us. And the version that Ray got was not accurate.

It’s not true that the women on my team were jumping up and down saying “we’ve got him, we’ve got him!” But there was enough accurate to show that there was really a spy and she really overheard a conversation. But look it was a one off  and that person won’t be doing that again. It’s just water off a duck’s back to be honest.

radioinfo: Is the correspondence between you and Alan Jones quite as polite as it is with Ray?

Holmes: No, but I haven’t had much direct correspondence with Alan. I mean he has very little time for Media Watch, understandably. After all, it was Media Watch that by pinging John Laws for his cash for comment, started the ABA’s cash for comment inquiry, which obviously did a lot of damage to Alan’s reputation…although not much damage to his ratings, it has to be said.

And he’s always regarded us as a pain in the bum and he occasionally tells his listeners. That’s fair enough. I’ve got no problem with that. We do what we do, he does what he does.

Most of our viewers, very few of them would listen to 2GB with any regularity and rather few of his listeners would watch Media Watch with any regularity. There isn’t a lot of crossover there.

What I think happens though and it happens with other shows too, Kyle and Jackie O for example, is when you take things that those guys say and you put them into the public domain for other people to listen to, who don’t normally listen to them, there is a kind of shock that such things are actually being said.

I mean for example, the chaff bag thing. No one mentioned it, no one talked about until we put it on Media Watch. Then suddenly it became a big talking point. He used that expression months before we put it on Media Watch and there was no talk about it because his listeners don’t find that objectionable at all.

radioinfo: My question then is, if his listeners don’t find it objectionable and your viewers wouldn’t either if you didn’t tell them, then what’s the point?

Holmes: Well the point is that in our opinion, it is objectionable, even if his listeners are used to it. And that’s all to do with the tone of public debate which has gotten extremely nasty in recent years, especially since the hung parliament. It’s got nasty in parliament, it’s got nasty outside parliament.

Now I’m not saying that people like Alan are by any means solely responsible for that, but they are a very important part of what’s an acceptable way of conducting political debate.

What Alan often does is read out incredibly abusive emails from his listeners, without any adverse comment from him. The ‘lying bitch’ that we ran on Media Watch last week, was a good example of that. He didn’t come back after that and say to Colin, you really shouldn’t say that sort of thing. He just laughed and went on.

So, what we’re doing is saying to a wider public, this is the standard of public debate that is going on, on a very popular and important radio program by a radio host that has a huge following and it’s considered acceptable, what do you think? And a lot of our viewers are shocked.

Same thing happened with The Chaser, when it was widely castigated by those shock jocks for its infamous sketch about the kids in hospital. It’s the same phenomenon. The Chaser’s audience on the whole accepted that sketch in the spirit in which it was intended. The wider public when it’s presented, especially with sort of out of context, not understanding not watching the Chaser found it shocking and there was a huge blowback mainly from people that don’t watch the show.

Same with Kyle and Jackie O, their audiences haven’t dipped at all despite the outrage. But I think that it is useful for the wider public to understand what is being said in various corners of the media and I think that, in particular, the reason we so often have a go at Alan is because I think he cultivates such a deep cynicism about government that is not, in my opinion, justified. A deep partisan hostility to this particular government.

He’s absolutely free to do that, and no one’s arguing that he shouldn’t take exception to what the government’s doing and how it’s doing it. It’s a free country. But it’s the tone that he encourages that I think is wrong.

radioinfo: Is what you’re saying then, is that Media Watch is solely a reflection of your opinion? You’re the arbiter of …

Holmes: Absolutely! Absolutely. And if I used those kinds of terms about people I would be, quite rightly, widely censured.

radioinfo: What do you think Alan has against your show?

Holmes: I just think he thinks we’re a bunch of overpaid taxpayer funded busybodies who should keep our noses out of his business. He says that often enough.

radioinfo: Would it be fair to say he provides a ‘happy hunting ground’ you can always revisit when you need material for your show?

Holmes: We could run Alan Jones for half our program every week and a lot of people would enjoy it. We don’t (enjoy it).

The only things I’ve taken Alan on about that I can recall have been either when he has, in our opinion – and it’s just an opinion, been unacceptably abusive about Julia Gillard and other, particularly women for some reason, but not exclusively so at all.

And also on the climate change issue where I think he is utterly and completely one sided. And, almost abusive to the very rare scientist that he has on that supports climate change. He absolutely bullies the heck out of them and that’s not doing his listeners, in my opinion, any kind of service.

radioinfo: But Jones, like a number of others in that space, argue that they have no obligation to offer their listeners different points of view because they are not journalists, they are merely entertainers who…

Holmes: I don’t buy that. I mean, no, he’s not a journalist but commercial talkback radio is arguably the most important forum that we have for discussing politics in this country. They have a responsibility in that position to, a) not to be abusive and, b) to be reasonably fair.

Again, Alan thinks climate change is a hoax. Now, I think that’s rubbish. I think. anyone who looked at the evidence objectively would think that what Alan is saying is rubbish. But he’s entitled to his opinion.

But I think the way in which he utterly loads this very important program of his, the very rare occasions when he gives the vast majority of the scientific opinion any airtime, the way in which he treats people which hold contrary views to his, means that his listeners get the impression, completely wrongly that there is a large and important body of scientific opinion that thinks that climate change is a hoax.

That is false. It’s simply not true. And it’s not doing his listeners a proper service in my opinion.

radioinfo: I’m not sure they care all that much. Radio seems to work best as tribal a thing – like following a football team. Especially with talk back, it’s us versus them. Alan’s not there to give them a break. And the ABC, in particular Media Watch and your viewers, is their opponent – that they don’t particularly like. And, I daresay, your viewers don’t like Jones and his listeners much either. Isn’t it just the way the two tribes, his and yours, go to war?

Holmes: To an extent, of course, you are right. And I totally accept what you say about radio and to an extent that Media Watch has a kind of tribal audience. But I don’t think that Media Watch’s audience are anything like as homogenous politically as Alan’s, I think they’re much more across the board.

There is a bit of a war, I suppose, if you want to put it that way, between Media Watch and Alan Jones only because Media Watch is one of the very few places anywhere that actually criticises Alan at all. Apart from when something like this (current issue) blows up, even politicians that are not favoured by him, are very very cautious about criticising him. Because they respect the clout that they think he has with voters.

I’m in a position, an unusual and unique one, of being able to stand up and say ‘Alan you’ve got no clothes.’ Of course, it won’t change him. I know that.

radioinfo: And now there’s the current situation, which is quite something else.

Holmes: Which the Sunday Telegraph and the other Sunday News Limited papers broke, not Media Watch.

radioinfo: And the irony of the thing is that the statement that has ignited this whole controversy was not actually made on air, which kind of leaves Media Watch and the ACMA with no jurisdiction. But now, there’s this other thing, people are ganging up, over a hundred thousand signatures on a website – mostly people who weren’t there and didn’t hear and didn’t know until the comments got published – are threatening businesses if they continue to advertise on his show. Isn’t that bullying the other way around?

Holmes: Well, this is a bit outside Media Watch’s brief, to be honest.

radioinfo: Perhaps you need to expand your show to become Social Media Watch…

Holmes: Look, I don’t think it’s bullying. In terms of 100,000 signatures on change.org, I’ve been actually surprised at the number of advertisers who paid attention to that and have announced that they’re pulling out. I suspect a lot of them may not be people who advertise on Alan Jones very much and they’re just getting a bit of kudos out of it.

In the end I don’t think 100,000 is such a huge number that it’s going to effect anything. I think that those companies have said do we want to be associated with the person who said this about the Prime Minister and I think they made their own moral judgments about that – and it may or may not last, and it may or may not be financially significant to 2GB.  I imagine there’s plenty of people queuing up to buy ads on Alan Jones’ show if other people move out. I can’t see them having fewer ads on the program.

radioinfo: The news I’m getting is that within that 100,000 there are some trolls involved who have made all sorts of threats to these companies – some of them relatively small businesses – that go beyond just ‘we won’t buy your products.’ I think one of these advertisers who received a few abusive phone calls likened it to a lynch mob.

Holmes: Look social media magnifies everything, it has given the public a voice – a direct voice which they’ve never had before. And a very easily used one and that manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. I mean take the incident with a young girl who died on a quad bike outside Wollongong a couple of weeks ago. Channel 7 sent a helicopter and the mother wrote that furious post on facebook. That became a social media vast outrage against channel 7, and they took down the post, that made things worse.

Prior to that the only people that might have been able to make any noise about it was Media Watch or you can go to the press council and wait three months for some sort of reply.

This is a new way in which the public can voice its outrage now. It’s not always going to be either polite or well judged or sensible, but in my opinion, on the whole, I think it’s a good thing that people have a voice – it’s been exempt for so long. The media has been able to say what it likes, and do what it likes, and the public has had very little voice to come back with…except through Media Watch and nothing else.

radioinfo: But the public isn’t regulated in the same way that the media is.

Holmes: Yes, but on the other hand no individual has anything like the clout that an Alan Jones has. 100,00 people might get together…

radioinfo: But isn’t a lynch mob a dangerous thing? If a lot of people with all sorts of grievances get on a bandwagon to bring down someone or another tribe with which they would otherwise have little contact, in order to release some pent up but unrelated frustration, isn’t that just bullying via new media?

Holmes: Mostly people are just reacting, in quite an emotional way, to that which they see and hear. And look, they’ve always reacted it’s just that they’ve had no way of expressing it before. And bear in mind, that sense of outrage is exactly what tabloid journalism, of all kinds, feeds on and has fed on since time immemorial – you try to stir it up. Alan Jones stirs it up every morning, Ray Hadley stirs it up every morning, The Daily Telegraph stirs it up every morning. But it’s us stirring up, we with the microphones and the public gets a feeling of fury. But now some of that fury comes back at us.

radioinfo: With the ‘chaff bag’ incident that was the subject of an ACMA inquiry, were you surprised that Jones was found to have no case to answer?

Holmes: No I wasn’t. And indeed I think that that was completely the right judgment. It’s one thing for Media Watch to say this is in really bad taste, it’s quite another for the statutory regulator to say that it was in breach of the code.

If you read the code it doesn’t say anything about not being rude about politicians. I think the complaint was drawing a very long bow and I’m glad that it was overturned.

radioinfo: Do you feel there should be stronger laws regarding what presenters can and can’t say on air?

Holmes: You can’t censor them. You shouldn’t censor them. But just occasionally for somebody like me to stand up and say look this is wrong, doesn’t do any harm. And hopefully even does a little bit of good.

radioinfo: But it doesn’t decrease their audience…

Holmes: No, but that shouldn’t be the only issue. There are people who do it well, I mean, look at Paul Murray. He doesn’t have the same audience as Hadley and Jones.

Even Ray when he does have somebody on with whom he disagrees, is politer to them and gives a better chance than Alan does. Alan just talks over them, doesn’t give them a bloody breath. I mean what’s the point? It’s bullying on air, that’s what it is.

radioinfo: Finally, leaving Alan alone, on the occasions when you run a story on the ABC, do you get more flack from ‘your own’ than you do from other media outlets?

Holmes: Oh yes, much more. They’re much more upset about it. As I said it’s no real skin off Alan’s nose if we’re rude about him. Our audience and his audience don’t cross over. When we have a go at 7.30 or Four Corners or Australian Story we’re talking directly to their audience. I’m somebody who they respect, who has worked in those programs, and has run most programs. Whereas Alan doesn’t respect me and that’s fine.

So when Media Watch has a go at those programs, which we very rarely do, they hate it. They absolutely hate it.

It’s quite rare that they stick their hands up and say it’s a fair cop. They usually feel very aggrieved. And on one occasion got taken as far as an official complaint with the ABC’s complaints process from Australian Story about Media Watch, that was before my time, but it can get very bitter and it’s the least pleasant part of my job.





Peter Saxon