Australian politics, society & culture

Who's for Breakfast, Mr Jones?

Sydney's talkback titan and his mythical power

David Salter

Long read7100 words
 

It’s the tone that first strikes you. That slightly prissy, impatient, semi-sour way of speaking that makes his voice on radio so distinctive. Not the sleeves-rolled-up journalistic directness of Neil Mitchell, nor the deep, mahogany oiliness of super-salesman John Laws. He gallops through words, almost stumbling over his asymmetrical phrasing and peculiar patterns of emphasis. Language and the microphone have been his only real tools for twenty years, yet Alan Belford Jones – The Parrot – never seems quite comfortable.

May 2006
Research Funding: The New Censorship
Has the Australian film industry lost its way?
Sydney's talkback titan and his mythical power
A responce to Michael Connor's 'The Invention of Terra Nullius'
Michael Haneke’s 'Hidden'
'Commander in Chief'
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 'Show Your Bones'

That tone. Nagging. Insistent. Unrelenting. Even on the brink of verbal derailment he keeps signalling to his audience: ‘What I’m telling you is urgent. These words are important. You need to know this.’

It’s a voice that speaks to a dominant share of the Sydney talk-radio market every weekday morning. It can summon prime ministers, premiers, police commissioners, sports stars, celebrities and captains of industry with a single phone call. It belongs to a man who’s amassed immense wealth by claiming to speak for the suburban battler on ‘struggle street’. It’s considered the most politically influential voice in the land. It’s the voice of our best-known bunyip blowhard: a demagogue who manipulates almost by habit, peddles base prejudice and will pipe just about any tune he’s paid to play.

Alan, I want to thank you, from me, for being the best friend anyone could ever hope for. You’re a proud Australian, a unique Australian, and we need more Australians like you.

– James Packer, Chairman of PBL, on the Alan Jones Program, 2UE, 2002

1989. We’d reached the coffee-and-grappa stage of a black-tie function at the Marconi Soccer Club on the western outskirts of Sydney. Tony Labbozzetta, then a capo of the local Italian community, was moving from table to table, urging his guests not to leave before hearing the after-dinner speaker. Alan Jones, scrubbed pink and looking a little too well fed for his brocaded dinner jacket, was the evening’s main attraction. Tony was in my ear. “You gotta stay listen. Let me tell ya, this fella’s really something, believe me.”

Jones spoke fluently, without notes, but his improvisational riff on the sanctity of individual effort was clearly no more than tonight’s variation on a well-worn theme. Leadership, commitment, personal resolve, the pursuit of excellence, courage. It was par-boiled Ayn Rand meets Nietzsche, garnished with a sprig of Banjo Paterson. Jones quickly built his little pile of platitudes from sotto voce beginnings to a level of intense oratory. I watched the faces of the audience. Surely these hard, self-made migrants, who’d driven here from their suburban villas, would see through this tosh? But no. They were all nodding in earnest agreement, lapping up the flashy verbiage. What was it about this Anglo-rugby–coach-turned-talkback-prattler that was striking such a chord?

The Jones persona – if there is one – is a chimera. Slippery as an eel; impossible to define. He’s like an Escher drawing: an intricate illusion in which up and down are interchangeable, and where all the parts seem to connect but never quite come together. There’s no consistent whole; nothing about his behaviour or professed opinions that would withstand measured deconstruction. Like his distinctive speaking style, it confounds the constraints of grammar yet somehow makes sense to his audience.

The Parrot defies parsing.

A quick spool-through of the life, so far, of Alan Jones reveals few dependable clues to what drives this uniquely self-motivated man.

He grew up in rural Queensland, deeply fond of his strong mother. Sent to board at a private school, he was a reasonable student and keen on sports. Jones went straight from a university arts degree back to another private school, teaching English and French. Prominent for his success as a sporting coach, especially of tennis and rugby teams, he left good positions at two schools after complaints were made that he was divisive, too close to some students and too harsh on others. Jones was an unsuccessful Liberal Party candidate for the NSW seat of Earlwood, and failed in attempts to secure other Liberal preselections. He became a speechwriter for the then prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, in Canberra before working for the Employers’ Federation of NSW.

Jones coached the Manly club to a surprise premiership in the Sydney Rugby Union competition in 1983. A year later, after an acrimonious campaign to unseat the incumbent, he was appointed coach of the Wallabies. He led the national squad to its undefeated ‘Grand Slam’ tour triumph in 1984 and began a new career as talkback-radio host with Sydney station 2UE in 1985. Sacked from the Wallaby coaching job after a disappointing 1987 World Cup campaign, Jones was charged soon after, in 1988, with two counts of outraging public decency in a London public toilet. He was twice exposed by ABC TV’s Media Watch for blatant plagiarism, and in 1999 was at the centre of an Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry into secret ‘cash-for-comment’ practices at 2UE. Jones switched to rival station 2GB in 2002 for a $4 million annual salary and a large slice of the company.

Despite the odd obvious hiccup, this is a powerful CV for anyone who believes the only worthwhile yardsticks of individual achievement are the growth of their personal wealth and social position. Jones has over-achieved on both fronts. He now operates in a stratum where – because he is rich, powerful and famous – episodes that would surely destroy the reputations of lesser mortals are forgiven.

For most Australians watching the ‘live’ telecast of the memorial service for Kerry Packer, the choice of Alan Jones as MC must have seemed obscure, even bizarre. Who was that smug, middle-aged man with such pretensions to familiarity with the deceased and his family that he could refer to the departed mogul as “KP” throughout the service? He made Packer sound like a brand of dog food, yet the choice of Jones for this sensitive role passed with little comment. At one point towards the end of proceedings, Jones, who has no sense of irony, solemnly described the nation’s wealthiest and most notorious bully as “an everyman – the voice of Australians with no voice”. Not one of the twelve hundred mourners dared laugh.

Rupert Murdoch: Well, look at the power of radio. Look at your power. You’ve got more power than I have at the moment.

Alan Jones: Oh, cut it out.

– Alan Jones Program, 2GB, April 2004

Jones claims extraordinary power, and he glories in its exercise. His influence flows directly from his radio program, a punishing 5.30–10.00 am, five-days-per-week effort that attracts twice the audience of his closest talkback rivals. He commands the breakfast market in Sydney largely because he’s so very good in the role.

Veteran publisher Richard Walsh, who spent months sampling Jones every morning for the caustic ‘Psittacosis Corner’ column in the Zeitgeist Gazette, is a grudging admirer of his craft. “I’m prepared to concede one thing about Jones. He is a skilful broadcaster. It’s a slick show. He’s eloquent. It’s eloquence I don’t particularly like because he’s eloquent about things I don’t agree with – but that’s like saying the Devil has all the best tunes.” Former Media Watch host Stuart Littlemore QC is less impressed. “The amazing thing about Jones is that he’s not even a lightweight. He has no ideas of his own. His skill – his only job – is to be Alan Jones, going on with all that crazy populist nonsense.”

But it is precisely this mastery of populist nonsense that gives the Jones program its perceived power and influence. He has become amazingly adept at identifying material that can be beaten into a lather of public outrage. The bulk of his program – apart from the advertising – is now devoted to these campaigns: Jones pompously putting himself on the white charger of moral certainty and riding the tired old nag all the way to his next ratings win. It’s done with such arrogance, hyperbole and eruptions of offensive intimidation that few are brave enough to stand against the juggernaut. Out of my way! Here comes radio’s caped crusader to the rescue!

The methodology that underpins these campaigns rarely changes: pick a target that’s unlikely, or unable, to hit back, then go for the jugular. Pursue the victim with relentless hammer-blows of repetition and keep the emotive crusades rolling for weeks on end. Yesterday’s rumour becomes today’s half-truth and tomorrow’s established fact. The Witches of Salem descend on the breakfast airwaves.

His stock-in-trade is to champion the sad cause of a powerless individual who’s purportedly been wronged by a large institution: government, the police, the public service, insurance companies, local councils, heartless lawyers, large corporations. This can be painted by Jones in comic-book terms as yet another David versus Goliath battle – the courageous broadcaster standing up for the little people against the faceless, indifferent might of ‘they’. In truth, Jones knows that major institutions will rarely choose to engage him in a public fight. It would be their single spokesman or a media statement against his four hours of airtime every day. No contest.

Here’s an example of how it works. In early March, Jones took up the plight of a sub-contractor running a one-man business servicing Coca-Cola vending machines. He’d been shot and permanently injured in a violent hold-up in Sydney’s outer suburbs. The original compensation case had awarded him substantial damages, but this was overturned on appeal after lawyers for the insurance company convinced the court the man had not been a genuine employee of Coca-Cola.

It’s a sad and complex story, and a sure-fire heart-tugger that Jones proceeded to squeeze for every last drop of moral outrage. He swung his bludgeon at Coca-Cola: If we’re going to have to drag Coca-Cola through the public, we will! (having already, of course, done just that). Within minutes, angry listeners were phoning in to say they’d now stop buying Coca-Cola products and would rip out the Coke vending machines from their workplaces. Good stuff! Good stuff! quoth Jones, delighted by this visceral response to his mob oratory. When a caller cautiously pointed out that the insurance company was only pursuing its rights under law, Jones exploded: If the world runs on legality we may as well shut up shop! We don’t need to know our legal rights – this is a moral obligation! (The next commercial on his program was for the Litigation Hotline, a company of compensation lawyers who promise listeners they can extract more in damages for their clients than any of them might dare to expect.)

Jones continued his assault on Coca-Cola for days: Coca-Cola is practising bastardry! He read out a list of Coca-Cola products, inviting listeners who intended boycotting the company to consult his website for more information. Individual board members of the company were named in diatribes that bordered on blackmail. He kept referring to “hundreds” of letters, faxes and emails of support, as if these somehow legitimised his position. After a fortnight of having the company name trashed mercilessly for hours every day, Coca-Cola cut their losses and offered the injured man a settlement.

The whole saga is an exemplary demonstration of how Jones enlists the spurious ‘democracy’ of public sentiment, most of which is his own creation. At no stage does he acknowledge that the views of those among his audience who choose to communicate with him are not a representative sample of general attitudes. They are, in truth, a miniscule number from a small, self-selecting group. Yet lazy (or uncritical) journalists routinely report this ‘talkback opinion’ as if it were a significant and reliable indicator of broad public sentiment or political intent.

Here’s the reality. Remarkably few people now call talkback programs. (Conceding this drought, Jones has taken to urging people to ring him rather than send emails.) Of those who do call, only a few are chosen by the producers for the honour of joining the queue to converse on-air with Jones. The producers do a quick pre-interview with each caller and make a selection of those who best suit the tenor of the program. Thus, anyone who survives this process to have their fifteen seconds of fame on 2GB has been manipulated into a role that primarily serves the purposes of Jones and his staff. Such are the pathetic practical dimensions of the ‘tide of talkback opinion’. None of this is unique to Jones or his program, but it is Jones who most frequently claims to represent the thundering truth of public sentiment: Public opinion can win the battle. The power of public opinion can never be underestimated so long as we get off our backside and do something.

More deceitful than the base emotional grandstanding of these campaigns is Jones’s refusal to allow that most issues – even an apparently simple case of injustice – are complicated by detail and competing principles. He sidesteps genuine analysis of complex questions because they resist reduction to his habitual, knee-jerk, us-and-them terms. Jones tends to stick with the anecdotal, to simplify until the themes can be compressed into six-word, hot-button headlines. Richard Walsh, who has medical qualifications, experienced this rejection of complexity first-hand during the NSW Drugs Summit. “He was attacking methadone treatment. I wrote to him, asking that he might possibly take a call from someone – not myself, but someone of authority in the area – who doesn’t share his view on drugs. I never received a reply. He’s not really interested in communicating, not remotely interested in opening his microphone to a countervailing view. Intellectually, he’s a totalitarian.”

Money has an immense gravitational pull. You have to be a saint if you’re not going to be influenced by receiving it.

– Julian Burnside QC, Counsel Assisting the ABA’s ‘cash-for-comment’ inquiry

For someone who expends so much verbiage trying to give the impression that money isn’t important, Jones has proved himself incredibly adept at amassing the stuff. Sam Chisholm, no slouch at negotiating media deals of dazzling scale, told John Singleton that the agreement that brought Jones to 2GB was the largest single contract for a media performer in Australian history. He should know. And that’s not counting the income we don’t know about – the millions that ooze through the sewers of commercial radio with secret strings attached, but leaving few traces.

To the bulk of Australia, beyond the endless suburban sprawl of Sydney, Alan Jones is best known as a central villain in the ‘cash-for-comment’ scandals of 1999. But five years earlier he’d already been exposed as a broadcaster who was happy to push a barrow, so long as the price was right. In an episode titled ‘Optus and The Parrot’, Media Watch proved that Jones had taken huge undeclared payments to favour Optus, then a new telecommunications carrier, while at the same time denigrating its major competitor, Telstra.

The ABC program didn’t pull its punches: “Let there be no doubt about it: Jones turned his program over to barefaced Optus propaganda. You can’t criticise Jones for unethical conduct, because he has no ethics.” Neither Jones nor his station, 2UE, challenged the Media Watch broadside. They cruised blithely onwards, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations and lobby groups keen to buy Jones’s opinions, provided their purchase remained hidden from public knowledge. It is difficult to imagine a more serious abuse of the trust vested in a popular broadcaster.

Media Watch returned to the ‘cash-for-comment’ theme in 1999, but this time it had a smoking gun: leaked copies of paperwork confirming that Alan Jones and John Laws entered into lucrative but undisclosed “personal representation agreements” to spruik the interests of a raft of businesses, including the major banks and Qantas. An extended Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry then duly established that Laws and Jones had indeed enriched themselves in this shameful way. They found that Laws first belittled and vilified the banks for months, then miraculously became their chief apologist. That breathtaking volte-face had been achieved by the simple laying on of cash by the bankers’ lobby group. Jones enjoyed the benefit of similar arrangements. Result: the broadcasting regulations were gently amended – not to outlaw these ‘cash-for-comment’ deals, but to regulate their disclosure. It was back to business as usual.

John Laws, caught with his tonsils in the till, sensibly kept his own counsel about the scandal. But Jones is cut from more hysterical cloth. Always the aggrandising self-deluder, he’s never stopped blustering about the unfairness of the ABA’s inquiry. As recently as February this year he was still proclaiming his innocence on air: I have never, ever in my life received money for doing anything. The fact that someone’s said that is just the most ludicrous proposition. No one has ever paid me for saying anything. No one.

To anyone who knows their way around commercial radio and the inquiry’s findings, this sophistry bears the distinct taint of Nixon-era ‘deniability’. True, some of the later ‘cash-for-comment’ deals from which Jones profited at 2GB may have technically been done with the radio station, not with him. But at 2UE the bulk of the money ended up in his pocket, and at 2GB he now enjoys an immense annual income, plus dividends from his part-ownership of the station, which builds each year. Yet the same man who so stridently denounces others who cite legalities still resorts to transparent hair-splitting as his means of denial: It was not an official court or charging process, and the only people guilty of ‘cash-for-comment’ was the judge in charge of the inquiry because he found actually what the Alan Jones critics wanted him to find, and he was paid to come to that conclusion. Jones knows he’s being too clever with the truth.

Further proof that Jones will say just about anything for money emerged after he switched from 2UE to 2GB. At his former station he’d been paid to boost Optus; at the same time, he had denigrated Telstra, at one point describing them as “corporate thugs”. Now, at 2GB, the station did a $1.2 million per year deal with Telstra for Jones to turn his coat inside out and say precisely the opposite.

The Telstra marketing plan for 2002 provided a helpful description of why spending $5000 a day to buy Jones’s opinion is good value: “The audience is extremely loyal to Jones and they listen to and respect his opinions and they use them to influence friends and families.” When the deal was concluded, Jones wrote to a senior Telstra executive cooing, We will be doing our very best to advance your causes. And he delivered in spades. Jones was soon – and repeatedly – describing his new paymasters as “good corporate citizens” and praising them for their “contribution to the community”.

But there’s an even more sinister aspect to this deal. The package with Jones also bought Telstra silence. Cash for no comment. Hush money. An ABA investigation found that during the period of the Telstra–2GB deal there were no interviews during the Jones program with experts or commentators who might hold views counter to the nominated Telstra line. Nor did representatives or spokespersons for Optus and Hutchison – Telstra’s main competitors at the time – get one second of airtime. Yet Jones can still declare, I have never had a cent from Telstra in my life, presumably relying on his standard disingenuous claim that it was the radio station, not him directly, who received the money.

The bulk of the damning evidence assembled by the ABA on this whole smelly arrangement was never officially published. After the draft report arrived on the desk of then ABA chairman, Professor David Flint, its original findings and conclusions were mysteriously recast. The Telstra–2GB–Jones deal now received what David Marr, on the ABC, called “the big tick” from the ABA and its chairman. A possible reason for this remarkable turnaround was then revealed by Media Watch and Mark Day of the Australian. There had been an exchange of cloying letters between the ABA chairman and Jones, each stroking the other’s tummy. Here’s an excerpt from just one of those letters, written by Professor Flint to Jones on 11 June 1999, three months before the ABA’s inquiry began:

Dear Alan,

… you have an extraordinary ability of capturing and enunciating the opinions of the majority on so many issues.

This of course annoys those who have a different agenda. I suspect it is extremely irritating to them that you do it so well …

Keep up your considerable contribution to the widening of our national debates.

Sincerely,

David

How nice, and how utterly unwise. Not long after this correspondence became public, Flint was forced to resign his chairmanship.

Particulars of Aggravated Damages:

… the defendant’s express malice in publishing matter, which malice includes his ulterior motives being his hatred of police, as evidenced by his serial defamations of serving and former officers.

– Document filed in the NSW Supreme Court, defamation action against Alan Jones, judgment dated 22.3.02

“Ulterior motives” … “express malice” … “serial defamations”: the phrases have a wonderful legal sonority. Lawyers in that case (Scott v Jones 2002) alleged that Jones had for years waged a campaign against a number of senior NSW police. Certain plaintiffs claimed that the broadcaster had acted maliciously because he was conducting a vendetta against police as a response to his 1988 experiences in London. The judge later struck out that particular as (legally) embarrassing, but Jones does have an inglorious history of making allegations against police officers that are later found to be untrue, and which ultimately cost his employers considerable sums to remedy.

It’s a recurrent failing of Jones that he cannot resist a disproportionate response. His sledgehammer crashes down daily on insignificant lapses. No morning on the program passes without at least one outburst of belligerent chest-beating. What might prompt a passing sharp remark from any reasonable commentator provokes prolonged banshee wails from Jones. Third-tier concerns become matters of national importance. Like many self-obsessed people he lacks a reliable sense of perspective, and that can lead him into error.

Some of his most strident crusades have been against individual police officers, and the general competence of law enforcement in NSW. He is fixated on the notion that the state has become ‘soft’ on crime. Jones is credited with hounding former premier Bob Carr into demanding the resignations of both his police minister and the police commissioner. But when it comes to pursuing individual serving officers, Jones finds it difficult to contain his rhetoric within the bounds of defamation law. His record of substantiating those allegations in court is woeful. For example:

Terry Dawson, Tactical Response Group officer v Jones. Settled.

Deborah Wallace, Crime Manager at Cabramatta v Jones. Settled.

Lola Scott, NSW Assistant Commissioner of Police v Jones. Settled.

There’s now another case afoot against Jones, brought by Clive Small, a former deputy commissioner of the NSW Police. A jury has already found that Jones broadcast material with imputations that were defamatory of Small. The constraints of professional ethics prevent the lawyers who were involved in any of these cases from making public comment. But why, up until now, has Jones (or his employer) always settled? Why hasn’t he stood by his own on-air claims and fought these cases to the end?

One senior barrister believes the reason is simple: Jones will not voluntarily give evidence in his own defence. “He won’t get in the witness box because he just doesn’t want to be cross-examined about his research, his sources, his motivations. 2UE and 2GB always plead a defence of qualified privilege and fair comment, both of which would require Jones to give evidence and defend his information. He’d have to nominate his sources and demonstrate that he was acting without malice – that he properly enquired into the facts. He just won’t get in the box voluntarily. Never does.”

But there was a delicious turning of the tables in the Lola Scott case. Stuart Littlemore QC, acting for Scott – and by then no longer hosting Media Watch – forced Jones on subpoena to give evidence. It was a highly unusual tactic: the plaintiff calling the defendant as a witness. The day when an unwilling Jones finally had to present himself at the Supreme Court in Sydney is well remembered. According to journalists assigned to cover the trial who swapped yarns afterwards, Jones was retching in the toilet before his call. A lawyer who watched the case describes the scene: “He was waiting in one of those little witness rooms. You could see the steam coming out from under the door. In court, he behaved in a most truculent way, which I’m sure gave the jury the shits.”

Yet the continued reluctance of Jones to appear as a witness has not prevented him from bringing defamation actions of his own. He’s currently suing the Sydney Morning Herald for an article that he claims accused him of using his program to blackmail AMP into forgiving a $7 million debt to the South Sydney Rugby League Club, of which he was football director at the time. Meanwhile, the knowledge that Jones is prepared to sue his fellow toilers in the media acts as a constant threat against anyone who would attempt a comprehensive account of his life and work. For a person so keen to mould public opinion and bend politicians to his will, Jones is highly reluctant to endure real journalistic scrutiny.

Chris Masters, the nation’s most respected long-form TV reporter, has discovered how difficult it can be to get anything genuinely new about Jones on the public record. He began work on a biography for ABC Books in late 2002, even though Jones declined to be interviewed. Masters finished his first 220,000-word draft in mid-2004 and completed the final edit by August 2005. That was the easy part. Since then the road to publication has been long, hard and slow.

Masters remains confident his 600-page effort, ‘Jonestown’, will be on sale before the end of the year. He points out that, remarkably, his will be the first book on Jones. “Here’s a very good question: Why isn’t there a book on Jones? Here is the most successful broadcaster in Australian history. No book. Here is the only Grand-Slam-winning rugby coach Australia has ever had. No book. Here is a man who was at the centre of ‘cash-for-comment’, one of the most intense scandals in broadcasting history. No book. Why not?”

It’s a good question. Stuart Littlemore QC, a specialist in defamation, ventures one rather depressing answer: “The certainty is that he’d sue. It’s almost not worth doing a proper book about Jones because he’ll sue, and even if you win it’ll have cost you so much money.”

In the acrimonious aftermath of the riots at Cronulla Beach in December 2005 the broadsheet newspapers amused each other by trading elegant opinion columns about whether or not Australia was a racist country. Alan Belford Jones could have saved them all that trouble. He knows it’s racist, and he knows how to surf those waves of simmering hatred.

Whether or not Jones is a genuine racist himself is difficult to judge from his transcribed words staring back mutely from the page. We need to listen to the off-air tapes from the days leading up to those riots to appreciate the full, goading venom of his self-appointed vigilantism. More frightening still was the way he proudly put himself at the head of the baying mob. Jones apparently sees no problem with crossing the line from demagogue to rabble-rouser:

Let me say this to you. You know I’m the person that’s led this charge here. Nobody wanted to know about North Cronulla, now it’s gathered to this. I can understand the young blokes who sent that text message yesterday: “Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday, every Aussie in the Shire, get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day. Bring your mates. Let’s show them that this is our beach and never welcome.”

No qualification, no distancing of himself or his radio station from those inflammatory sentiments. Jones didn’t even pause to question what was being revenged, or to condemn the blatant incitement to violence against ethnic groups that he’d just quoted in full. Instead, the king of Sydney talkback gleefully kept parading public prejudice in the guise of acting as the mere conduit for community feeling:

I’ve got a stack of emails in front of me. Let me read you this one: “Alan, It’s not just a few Middle Eastern bastards at the weekend. It’s thousands. Cronulla is a very long beach and it’s been taken over by this scum. It’s not a few causing trouble. It’s all of them.”

Then, the cynical propagandist’s trick of pretending to deplore what you implicitly advocate. Callers who mentioned confrontation were sagely advised not to take the law into their own hands. At least not yet:

We’re not giving any ground to them … I do understand what you’re saying, Paul, but we’ve got to back off here … I’m saying to all those young people, let’s see if the full force of the law works.

There it is again. That recurring Jones insinuation of police being ‘soft’ on crime and not using physical force to control crowd behaviour. But the ugly truth was soon out. For him, it’s always us and them. Assimilate or suffer the consequences:

These people have got to know that we’re not going to cop this stuff anymore. You’re welcome in our home but our home has certain rules. If you don’t live by those rules you’ll be tipped out of home.

“These people”? “This stuff”? “Our home”? “Tipped out”? And who, precisely, are “we”? Surely not another ethnic group who Jones then cheerily attempted to dragoon into doing the dirty work he was so disingenuously pretending to condemn:

I tell you who we want to encourage, Charlie: all the Pacific Island people. Because you want to know something? They don’t take any nonsense. They are proud to be here – all those Samoans and Fijians. They love being here. And they say, ‘Uh-oh, uh-oh. You step out of line, look out.’ And of course, cowards always run, don’t they?

So “these people” – whoever they may be – are, axiomatically, cowards. As for anyone with the courage to suggest there might actually be two sides to this situation, Jones was ready with both barrels of venom-filled invective:

Let’s not get too carried away. We don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney. So let’s not get carried away with all this mealy-mouth talk about there being two sides. I can tell you. You don’t hear people complaining about Catholics and Protestants and Anglicans. I’m sorry, but there is a religious element in all of this and we’ve got to make sure we welcome people into our country and we welcome them on certain terms and certain standards and those standards are not being met. All across Sydney there is a universal concern about gangs, and the gangs are of one ethnic composition. And they have one thing in mind.

It defies belief that Jones can broadcast this bile and not immediately be prosecuted for racial vilification. During the 1996 Olympics he described a member of the Chinese women’s basketball team as a “cow”. They’d had the temerity to beat Australia.

He’s an influence – for better or for worse. When you get down to the community level, that’s the way democracy works.

– Richard Walsh

By long-standing received wisdom, the Jones talkback agenda is so attuned to the public pulse that it often migrates directly to the tabloid front-pages within a day, and then to commercial current-affairs TV. If Jones’s producer calls, everyone from the prime minister down will cancel appointments to appear on the program.

But there is a fundamental difference between this day-to-day power that Jones’s gift for on-air bullying allows him to exercise and true political influence. He may well be able to embarrass the roads minister into erecting new traffic lights at a school crossing by tomorrow, but the shaping of substantial, long-term public policy is beyond him.

A dispassionate analysis of the radio audience survey figures reveals that politicians from John Howard down have no real cause to jerk to each pull of Jones’s puppet strings. His reputation for influencing votes is founded on a clever illusion. In terms of electoral politics the Jones juggernaut is not much more than a thimble-and-pea trick. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether his petulant breakfast blathering swings a single vote.

Here’s why. Jones’s 17.5% share certainly leads the breakfast ‘talk’ market in Sydney by a healthy margin, but the hard numbers show him to be a far from dominant voice. For the first survey period of 2006 his average audience was around 185,000 people. That’s from a potential market of 3.75 million listeners. In other words, Jones commands a large slice of a very small pie. As a reference point, his average audience in Sydney is on a par with the number of viewers in that city for Gardening Australia or Mythbusters, TV programs that languish near the bottom of the top 100 and are hardly at the forefront of the public mind. He is listened to by one-eighth the number of people who read Melbourne’s Herald Sun every day.

The underlying flimsiness of the Jones paper tiger is further confirmed by the demographics of his audience. Around 70% of Jones’s listeners are aged over 40. A whopping 49% are over 55. In party-political terms, that means just 7% of his average audience – around 12,750 people – fall within the accepted ‘swinging voter’ demographic of 18–39. Of these, no more than 10% are likely to change their vote from election to election. That’s a grand total of 1,250 people spread over Sydney’s 25 federal electorates.

So while the Jones program remains a highly effective platform from which to sell pensioners cut-price groceries, superannuation funds and funeral plans, the oft-repeated claim that he delivers the Coalition a solid block of 300,000 votes is poppycock. The truth is that Jones preaches to an audience whose underlying politics were rusted on decades ago. It doesn’t matter much what he tells them: reinforcing or challenging their views yields no long-term change, and therefore no change of vote. He may have tangible short-term influence in state politics but, electorally, Jones is shooting blanks.

The voters who do decide elections – predominantly in that 18–39 age group – lend their ears elsewhere. They’re mostly listening to the FM music stations, which rarely mention politics outside their news bulletins for fear of scaring away an audience that finds public issues boring and irrelevant. Jones’s current station, 2GB, speaks to just 5% of that high-spending, politically fickle audience; the FM stations attract more than 70%. Any aspiring premier or prime minister would do better to study the pop charts than the latest Newspoll figures.

Yet the myth of The Parrot persists. The armies of PR urgers, political touts and spin doctors in NSW whose livelihoods largely depend on the content of the Jones program accept it as self-evident that his is the most powerful single voice in Sydney. And that’s the nub of this deception. So long as politicians and their apparatchiks keep investing him with that power, he’ll wield it.

Alan Belford Jones delights at hinting that he holds enormous sway over the machinery of policy-making, but it’s more illusion than reality: a perception founded on his tireless self-promotion and thinly veiled threats to mobilise that influence to embarrass whoever might be his chosen target de jour. At core he’s just another radio performer being paid a fortune to prattle his way through all those thousands of empty hours between the ads. It’s showbiz, not politics.