Radio gets too active


Radio gets too active - 1st May 2004
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)


Not even a prime minister is safe when the titans of talkback clash. Wendy Frew reports.

It's no secret. The Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Sydney radio king Alan Jones are great mates, and the two share a conservative outlook. The Prime Minister is a regular guest on Jones's 2GB breakfast talkback program, where he usually gets an easy run from the otherwise acerbic presenter on sensitive issues such as the war in Iraq.

In return, Jones gets to mix it with political and business elites at functions such as the Prime Minister's barbecue lunch for US President George Bush last year, and a party to celebrate Howard's 25 years in federal politics. Jones has even been master of ceremonies at some of Howard's parties.

But for the Prime Minister the friendship holds an extra and critically important attraction: for years, Jones has held the No.1 spot in breakfast on Sydney radio, Australia's biggest and most lucrative commercial radio market. He also appears regularly on Today on Kerry Packer's Nine Network. That gives him the ear of 540,000 2GB listeners a day, an estimated 250,000 TV viewers, and the power to set the news agenda state-wide, and sometimes nationally.

Talkback radio has been described as a litmus test of community feeling but it also offers politicians a chance to avoid tough questioning while seemingly reaching out to the masses. As Howard himself once said: "Talkback radio has played a greater role in shaping the outcome of an election of the last few years than other sections of the media."

Contact between the politician and Jones has been so regular over the years that in 1999 Howard assigned a senior staffer to deal with Jones's concerns and to handle the hundreds of letters received from the broadcaster on topics as diverse as benefits for war veterans and bans on imported uncooked salmon.

Jones's links to Australia's sporting and business communities make him a voice worth listening to. He's a former coach of the Wallabies, a power broker in the South Sydney rugby league club, and is close to media heavyweights such as Packer, Sam Chisholm and 2GB owner and millionaire ad man John Singleton.

The Jones-Howard relationship, for the most part mutually satisfying, has occasionally been the subject of public speculation and scrutiny. But it now faces its toughest test following sensational allegations made by 2UE broadcaster John Laws that Jones claimed to have forced Howard to re-appoint David Flint as chairman of the media watchdog, the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA).

Laws told his listeners on Wednesday that Jones had told him at a dinner party in November 2000: "I personally went to Kirribilli House and instructed John Howard to re-elect David Flint or he would not have the support of Alan Jones in the forthcoming election."

Jones branded Laws's claims "fanciful" while Howard said he and Jones had never had such a conversation. The Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, says if the dinner party allegation is true it "would be a serious breach of the ministerial code". He has demanded Howard provide a more complete explanation.

Questions about the Government's relationship with Jones deepened further when it was revealed the following day that the Veterans Affairs Minister, Danna Vale, wrote to Jones on parliamentary letterhead assuring him of "our warm support" and asking him to "add our names to the long list of all your friends". In a blunder that will be the butt of political jokes for years to come, she accidentally faxed the letter to the rival radio network 2UE.

A cloud also hangs over Flint's integrity and that of the ABA following revelations that the chairman had failed to disclose what now appears to be a close relationship with Jones.

Back in October 1999, on the first day of the ABA's so-called cash-for-comment inquiry that examined corporate sponsorship of radio broadcasters, Flint said he hardly knew Jones. He told the members of the investigating panel he had once briefly met the broadcaster at the launch of a memorial to an athlete, and a second time at a book launch. Flint ended up stepping down from the inquiry after appearing on Laws's program not long before it was due to start.

The ABA eventually found that 2UE - where Jones and Laws both then worked - had breached the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice 95 times.

Flint has now confessed to exchanging a "stream of letters" with Jones in the months leading up to the cash-for-comment inquiry.

ABC TV's Media Watch disclosed on Monday that in one of the letters, on ABA letterhead, Flint told Jones "you have an extraordinary ability of capturing and enunciating the opinions of the majority on so many issues". According to Laws, in another letter, from Jones to Flint, in June 1999 - three months before Flint announced the ABA would hold an inquiry into the cash-for-comment scandal - Jones refers to "their allegiance".

Flint now says his failure to disclose the letters to the 1999 inquiry was an oversight.

The warm feelings between Flint and Jones mirror those between Jones and the Prime Minister. Flint also has connections to Howard.

The Herald has learned that in 2000 the then minister for communications, Richard Alston, had reservations about Flint's reappointment but was won over by Howard.

What Laws has described as "a very unattractive little troika" of Howard, Jones and Flint raises a raft of questions about conflicts of interest and perceived bias. Is Australia's top political leader too close to a powerful broadcaster? Can the ABA be considered an independent regulator when its chairman has failed to distance himself from a broadcaster who has been the subject of several serious ABA investigations?

Flint himself seems to have answered the question of whether his public endorsement of the Howard Government's involvement in the Iraq war should disqualify him from overseeing Alston's complaints about the ABC's coverage of the Iraq war. Yesterday the ABA announced that Flint had decided to take no further part in considering the Alston complaints "in the interest of preserving public confidence" in the ABA's integrity and impartiality.

Yesterday's statement from the ABA followed an emergency meeting of the board members with Flint on Thursday to express their concerns about the damage being done to the regulator.

Laws claims to have several witnesses to Jones's dinner party statement about the PM and Flint, including his manager, John Fordham. However, the "golden tonsils" has his own axe to grind. His ratings never recovered from Jones's defection to 2GB, when he took many of 2UE's listeners with him. Laws also feels he has been penalised harshly by the ABA over his sponsorship arrangements but that Jones got off lightly.

Laws admits his decision to recount the now-infamous dinner party conversation with Jones in November 1999 is partly a case of "payback". However, he has expressed publicly what many people would dare say only behind closed doors. "There seems to be a certain fear of Alan. Maybe because, you know, he's such a vicious old tart," Laws said on air.

As for his claim about Jones's boasting at the dinner party? "The statement, I'm telling you, was made. So it now seems that either Alan Jones or the Prime Minister is a liar."

Links:

Media websites

The Sydney Morning Herald

Australian Broadcasting Authority

2GB

2UE

Macquarie Radio Network

Southern Cross Broadcasting

ABC Media Watch

Communications Law Centre

Other websites

Prime Minister of Australia

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