December 2006 - January 2007

Comment

Jonestown

By David Marr
‘Jonestown: The Power and The Myth of Alan Jones’, Allen and Unwin; $29.99

“I think that is so outrageous,” brayed Andrew Bolt. We were sitting in the armchairs of the ABC’s Insiders, cameras rolling, the morning after chunks of Chris Masters’ Jonestown began appearing in the press. Bolt’s voice was steady and angry. “I’ve read the excerpts that The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran from this book. They all focused on his sexuality and the fact that he was a teacher in charge of boys. And it went, ‘Wink, wink, nudge, nudge: teacher, gay, boys.’ And I think that is so outrageous. There is nothing to suggest that Alan Jones did anything improper. And if he was not a conservative, but someone of the Left –”

Bolt was making good time. In under 20 seconds, he had reached the vague, encircling conspiracy of the Left that explains most evils in his world. I groaned, “Oh, dear God,” as he thundered on: “– you would join me in condemning this rank homophobia. This is disgraceful.” Bolt was the first, but not the last, to bring Kirby into the argument: “If this were Justice Michael Kirby, you would be shocked by this. It’s gutless of you not to complain.”

The circus that followed saw star columnists of the Murdoch and Fairfax press performing as a pack. I can’t pretend to be entirely objective about this. They savaged Masters but had a go at me, too, for I helped choose those extracts. Bolt let his Herald Sun readers know I was the crudest kind of “gay-baiter”, willing to put aside all my principles to destroy Jones for the crime of being “conservative”. Bolt’s big finish was addressed to us both: “So slime him, boys. Slime him again and again and again, until you yourselves are so covered in that stinking stuff that we can't make out a single human feature on your faces.”

Piling into the stoush were The Daily Telegraph’s Piers Akerman (“A queer crusade to smear a rival”), The Sydney Morning Herald’s Miranda Devine (“A journalist’s great shame exposed”), The Australian’s born-again gay conservative Catholic pundit Christopher Pearson (“Detestable standards”) and Paul Sheehan, also of The Sydney Morning Herald (“Bullies judged by the book”). Abuse was colourful. Decibels were high. Claims were wild. No one was asking the combatants the sort of questions that editors ask journalists: What’s your proof? Where’s the logic? And even, Is this fair? In the freewheeling world of Opinion, none of this matters anymore. It’s entertainment with a nasty political edge, where the entertainers demand to be taken very seriously. There will be no jokes ...

Their tactics never vary: they set up fake controversies to mask the real ones . The only question waiting to be answered – until Bolt opened his mouth on Insiders – was what that concocted storm and fury would be about. Masters was to be denounced for the political malice that drove him to “out” the broadcaster and make baseless allegations of paedophilia. Once Bolt made the call, the rest of the pack followed. Masters had “done a Heffernan”, thundered Devine, for he had “levelled the most serious accusation you can make about a man against Jones, with no evidence”. But where, in God’s name, where those accusations?

Masters spends three chapters of Jonestown examining Jones’s catastrophic early career as a schoolteacher. Despite bringing sporting glory to a couple of high-end private schools in the 1960s and ’70s, Jones left both after humiliating controversies. In the book, former pupils put their names to accounts of inappropriate behaviour. Jones’s supporters also have their say. Masters concludes that Jones did himself in at the Kings School and Brisbane Grammar through erratic judgement, bad temper, harsh treatment of those he put on the outer, and intense – but not physically sexual – relations with his schoolboy favourites. The headmaster of Kings feared lawsuits. Jones went.

And better for him that it’s now forgotten. More than energy and broadcasting skill explain Jones’s survival as a big figure in this country. There is also amnesia. The revelation in 1999 that he sold his opinions for millions should have left him scuppered, washed up, wrecked and finished, there and then. But he survived cash-for-comment, protected by backers and by an audience willing to forget. Jonestown was going to be a problem even if it had nothing new to say, for it would sit on bookshelves, fully indexed, within reach, a handy means of recalling all the half-forgotten outrages of his career. But Masters has a great deal that's new and damaging to reveal, including this account of Jones’s school-teaching career. But paedophilia?

Jonestown gets into very murky territory, but makes no allegations of sexual impropriety by Jones at Kings and Brisbane Grammar. Masters wrote, “The story is mostly of emotional manipulation.” No evidence of paedophilia is produced and no allegations are made. None. Yet the pack detected Heffernan-style claims of paedophilia in the very atmosphere of the book and accused Masters (and me) of advancing the somewhat unlikely argument that all gay men are potential paedophiles. Proof? Not needed. This is the world of Opinion. The pack savaged us for “linking such a high-profile discussion of homosexuality, once again, with that old canard, the predatory homosexual intent on kiddy-fiddling.”

Seeing this lot spring so aggressively to the defence of gay men had its funny side. Akerman memorably declared on Insiders a few months ago, “You cannot call a relationship between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, or a man and a dog or his cat or his goat, a marriage.” Now, in the aftermath of Jonestown, he drew himself to his full height and declared, “That sexuality determines an individual's persona is intellectually risible.”

While news to just about anyone who's written a biography in the past century, Akerman’s pronouncement came as a particular news to me. In seven years of taking pot-shots at me in his columns, he has rarely failed to remind his readers that I am gay. I'm a homosexual commentator, homosexual spokesman, homosexual activist and “The Sydney Morning Herald’s expert in matters queenly”. I’m “prissy” and “flaccid”. I purse my lips. Piers even wants his readers to know that I can be seen at the beach with homosexuals, “disporting with his pals before the North Bondi Surf Club”. He may not think homosexuality integral to Jones’s persona, but sure seems to think it’s integral to mine.

Spend hours – or days – poring over these arguments, trying to make sense of them, and you find you’re in the territory of clever high-school debating. Words slide around. Arguments disintegrate at a touch. Everyone is third speaker. Some of the pack can really write. Their mastery of abuse is, in its way, dazzling. Others fumble around, butting one paragraph against the next, hoping for the best. Or worst. The fake paedophile controversy was at its height in the first week of the book’s publication, muffling without smothering real debate over the real issues raised by Jonestown.

Jones was absent. Abandoning his 2GB microphone days before the book appeared, he flew to London on urgent business – to see the West End premiere of Dirty Dancing. But he was not out of sight. The broadcaster was available to be photographed in London foyers and later at the Melbourne track, looking chipper but saying nothing: “Mate, I've made a decision not to make any comment on this issue and I'm not about to start now.”

He must have wished John Brennan stayed mum. No one knows Jones like Brenno: this is the guy who recruited him to radio back in the ’80s; the 2UE executive who failed through the cash-for-comment years to make Jones comply with broadcasting rules; the current program director of 2GB, the station Jones part-owns. Brenno fired off a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald comparing his boss to Jesus Christ: “He reminds me of another man some 2000 years ago who had the worst interpretations put upon His kindest actions, yet He went on; who had His words warped, twisted, falsely reported, minimised, yet He went on; was slighted, even laughed to scorn when He gave of His very best, yet He went on. And so will Alan Jones go on ...”

Talkback radio hadn’t rushed to the barricades for Jones. The world of sport was all but silent. Business was hushed. His old “pick and stick” pal James Packer called him a dear and vilified friend: “My heart goes out to him.” Politicians were wary, but the prime minister deplored the violation of Jones’s privacy and was among the first to cast him in the role of political victim: “If this had been an issue regarding the sexuality of somebody on the centre-Left, there would have been an absolute uproar.” When Jones returned to the microphone on Monday, October 30 – still saying nothing at all about the book – John Howard offered himself for interview. That nine-minute grilling about school chaplains and interest rates was a telling public endorsement by the prime minister. Jones was not being disowned.

But it is more difficult now. The closet protects everyone. Even if every man and his dog knows someone is gay, they can still pretend otherwise while he stays in the closet. The rights and wrongs of outing Jones was a real controversy inextricably mixed with the sham paedophilia allegations. At stake was not only Jones's fate in a potentially hostile world, but the reputation of all the businessmen, all the politicians who have courted the man to protect and promote their interests, and the pack of newspaper commentators with whom he hunts. Jonestown outed them all.

The pack raged at Masters as if they’d never known Jones was gay before reading Jonestown. But surely these plugged-in commentators knew? I put the question to them all. Andrew Bolt refused to answer, declaring my question a “red herring”. Bolt doesn’t debate unless he’s certain the ground suits him. Sheehan wandered past my desk to say he thought the questions silly. Devine responded: “Don’t know. Don’t care.” She didn't demur when I said I’d take that to mean she wasn’t surprised. Akerman was superbly vague: “Someone had mentioned it tangentially but it had never been a matter of interest, either way.” Pearson, who has dealt with his sexuality by taking a lifelong vow of celibacy, told me that even after reading Jonestown, he is still not convinced Jones is gay: “I don’t know it at all.”

Their bullshit betrays them. That Jones’s sexuality has been an open secret for years puts the controversy over his “outing” into its true perspective. At stake was not whether Jones was gay, but whether his sexuality could be publicly discussed. For many – particularly in the gay and lesbian community – it makes no difference that someone’s sexuality is widely known by the press, politicians, the public, colleagues, friends and family: his privacy must still be protected unless he’s a public hypocrite or his sexuality impacts on public life. But how much privacy did Jones have left to protect? Stacy Farrar, of the Sydney Star Observer, wrote, “His homosexuality has been widely known, in the gay community at least, for years ... and I personally think that it would be silly and overly squeamish to not at least mention Jones’s sexuality in a comprehensive study of his life.”

That was Chris Masters’ argument, too: “I don’t know how you could’ve written the book and not dealt with it.” That’s the biographer’s defence, but is it enough? Not quite. Obscure civilians should be protected from the necessary violations of privacy involved in biography. But that’s not Jones. His political usefulness may be faltering, his ratings are sliding are little, but he remains the most feared man at the microphone in this country. And because he sets himself up as such a ruthless critic of this little world, we all have a right to know where he is coming from and what his values are. After more than 20 years of belting people around the head – at times because he was secretly paid to do so – we have a right to know exactly who Alan Jones is. One of those things is gay.

If the pack hoped to kill off the book, it failed spectacularly. In its first week in the shops, Jonestown was the number-one bestseller across the nation. After another fortnight, the $50 hardback had sold a staggering 25,000 copies. Sales were almost as strong in Melbourne, where Jones is not on air, as in the city where he still reigns as the king of breakfast radio. The fear of commercial failure cited by the ABC as its excuse for shamefully dumping Jonestown was looking shabbier by the day. The book was a publishing phenomenon.

Silence would have helped Jones more, but this was an opportunity too good for the pack to pass up to have another go at the sinister conspiracy of malice, hypocrisy, naivety and deceit those columnists call the Left? “Might it be,” asked Piers Akerman, in the Telegraph, right at the start, “that those who proclaim their support of privacy legislation, civil liberties and indescribable acts between consenting adults, are prepared to abandon all principle if they can shred the reputation of those whose success they envy and politics they despise?”

To counter conspiracy theories with facts is probably a category mistake. But here are a few: left-wingers didn’t move Jones on from Brisbane Grammar, Kings, the Wallabies and the Balmain Tigers. Something went wrong each time that had nothing to do with party politics and a great deal to do with Jones’s character. Nor can left-wingers be blamed for Jones’s failures inside the Liberal Party: the failed preselections, a failed election attempt and a curtailed career as a speechwriter for Malcolm Fraser. Nor was the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which tore Jones’s reputation apart in the cash-for-comment inquiry, a nest of left-wingers. Perhaps what Akerman, Bolt and the rest of them find most left-wing about Jonestown is its way of reminding us that all this happened.

Driven by gusts of malice, Christopher Pearson denounced ABC Books for the “scandal” of even considering using “scarce public resources” to try to destroy Jones by mounting “an ideologically driven and fiercely personal attack on his character”. For connoisseurs of rant, Pearson’s column was a joy to read: “As well as entrenching itself as boutique publisher-in-chief to the Howard haters, ABC Books is also a preferred vehicle for the clerical Left and the spiritual-uplift market.” Pearson listed ten titles to prove his point. They fitted his thesis perfectly. But only one was, in fact, published by ABC Books. Pearson had stuffed up completely. In a mea culpa to his readers, he had yet another go at the ABC, blaming its website for creating “a misleading impression”.

The pack has moved on, hunting the Left elsewhere: under beds, in university corridors, everywhere elites gather to swap their dangerous opinions. And the public, sick of newspapers filled with columnists’ endless fake rage, does the only sensible thing: settles down with a good book like Jonestown.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

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