Tagged: Kyle Sandilands

The price of outrage

Sometimes a story moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with. Such has been the case with the saga of Alan Jones. I wrote an open letter to 2GB on Saturday evening, shortly after news of Jones’ intemperate remarks to a gathering of Young Liberal students in Sydney broke. I then slept in on Sunday, prior to working my night job.

By the time I’d woken up, I’d already missed half the fun. Jones’ press conference yesterday, purportedly to apologise to the Prime Minister, has already been much discussed, and derided, for its transparent insincerity. To say Jones “doesn’t get it” doesn’t cover it. I shook my head, went to work, and after getting home at six in the morning, I slept late again.

While I was blearily shoving cereal down the hatch at midday, a petition launched by change.org to remove Jones from his duties was collecting over 30,000 signatures. I would guess that very few of them listen to 2GB, but that didn’t stop sponsors from withdrawing from Jones’ program: luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz; supermarket oligarchs Woolworths; tea-makers Dilmah; Freedom Furniture; the list goes on. The moral question for them now is whether or not they’ll resume their support for Jones when the opprobrium abates.

Jones has, of course, been pilloried from all quarters and all sides of politics, though, again, there’s been discussion about the timing and tenor of the condemnations: compare Malcolm Turnbull’s brisk and unequivocal condemnation to Tony Abbott’s relatively tardy and tame one. That’s all grist for the mill for commentators, and for the Labor Party. I’ll leave that there and return to the central theme.

Jones’ remarks would have created outrage at any time in any context. Outrage is, after all, part of his stock in trade. Nonetheless, it’s the timing here that’s really pushed his career to the limit; that forced him to “man up” (and note, even his apologies are gendered: the subtle implication throughout was that Gillard ought to do the same if she wanted to mess with the big boys).

Once, Jones would have scoffed at the most timid suggestion that he apologise. This time it’s different. It’s not just the sheer vindictiveness of what he said; it’s that it marks the symbolic bottoming-out of our public discourse that has been an increasing topic of debate essentially since Tony Abbott assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It comes barely a fortnight after The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with more than its own share of print-version shock jocks, launched a war on Twitter trolls. That it was a journalist from the same newspaper that broke the yarn (along with, it should be acknowledged, Twitter user @greenat16) is a wonderful irony.

As I wrote to 2GB, I wasn’t sure where they drew their own lines in the sand. But Australians, as I predicted, have drawn it for them, and sent a reminder to our political classes: the level of bile in public debate is starting to make us all sick. And, in this case, it’s social media users that stood up to the real trolls in our society. Not the twerps on Twitter; the ones with real power and influence.

Alan Jones is as entitled to his views as the rest of us. All of us occasionally say things that transgress the bounds of good taste, and nothing Jones said to a private gathering of young Tories was, as far as I can tell, defamatory, discriminatory or an incitement to violence. The same can’t be said of many of his previous utterances.

At the end of the day, the real question is why Jones and his ilk – Sandilands, Jackie O, Ray Hadley and the rest – should be afforded the continuing privilege of a microphone. That’s something that only their audiences, and the advertisers that enable their careers can really answer, but on the weekend they were reminded, again, that outrage cuts both ways – and trafficking in it comes at a cost.

Baiters, haters and spivs

In the online edition of Melbourne-based publication King’s Tribune last month, editors Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw came to a radical decision. They resolved – after a few months of earnest consideration was capped by one post of anonymous, misogynist bilge too many – to turn comments on their website ”off”.

Given the magazine deals mostly in robustly expressed opinion, and not wishing to discourage debate, Gilmore and Shaw made an even more radical suggestion: letters could be sent by email or Facebook, or even (are you sitting down?) by post. The most cogent, topical and witty of them would be considered for publication.

It’s important to note the Tribune is a small venture. It began five years ago as a newsletter for a St Kilda bar and became a ”real” magazine last October, extending its reach through newsagents into Sydney and Canberra. Its circulation is less than 1000; Gilmore and Shaw keep day jobs.

There are practical reasons for a small publication like the Tribune to disable comments: neither the editors nor individual writers have the time, energy or inclination to monitor and moderate, much less reply to them all. There are more pressing things, such as getting out the next issue.

The Tribune is not alone. Many bloggers are heading down the same path, which seems counter-intuitive, given immediacy and interactivity were two of the key attractions of blogging in the first place. But how many people are actually bothering to read the so-called bottom half of the internet, let alone add to it?

My guess is that it’s a tiny minority, but it’s a minority that’s having a disproportionate influence on both the tone and direction of the print and electronic media.

The key question for older mastheads in particular is how much immediate, non-considered, anonymous commentary enhances public debate – after they’ve spent valuable resources weeding out the spammers, trollers, and astro-turfers that deliberately seek to distort and/or poison it.

There’s some evidence the astro-turfers, in particular, are on the march. British writer George Monbiot recently told of being contacted by a whistleblower that worked as part of a PR team paid to infiltrate comment threads and forums, doing the bidding of their corporate clients. The whistleblower worked under 70 different usernames.

The implications for debates on contentious topics such as climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt – are obvious. And alarming.

Then there’s the issue of anonymity. This might be vital if you’re a Chinese or Syrian dissident or, for that matter, a spambot turned corporate whistleblower. Mostly, though, it just allows people to indulge their worst tendencies, not only towards individuals but entire social groups.

In this respect, a culture of widespread online bullying – particularly towards female writers – actually has the potential to drive some of our brightest voices out of public life altogether. Writers have always needed thick hides, but for some the price of your anonymity can be measured in their therapy bills.

It’s true that people haven’t changed in their tendency to be biased, ill-informed, unreasonable or at times plain inarticulate, and that we shouldn’t blame the technology (which can also be such a transformative agent for good) for the shortcomings of those who abuse it.

After all, people can also be wise, considered, challenging and eminently reasonable, and they too can reach a wider audience than ever before. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Mostly, comment forums remind me of children’s playgrounds, where the bullies always win – because everyone else scarpers.

The sad truth is that controversy outrates reason every time. We live in an immoderate age. It’s why Ray Hadley, Kyle Sandilands, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are among the best-paid and most powerful media personalities in the country.

Does the popularity of The Drum, The Punch and even, for that matter, Q&A depend first and foremost on the talent of their writers and guests? Or do they live or die on the extent of the frenzy they generate? This is a difficult dilemma for mainstream media publications, which (unlike The King’s Tribune) base part of their online business models on advertising pageviews.

The genie is long out of the bottle, to the point that it’s both impossible and undesirable to stuff it back in. But, were the genie able to grant three wishes, I’d request genuine transparency of identity (why can’t names and addresses be withheld, where clearly necessary, on request?), a much tougher line on personal abuse and a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.

All of which takes time, money and human resources. But with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.

First published in The Age, 12 April 2012