Last week in America, Don Imus, a popular radio host, whose show Imus In The Morning was also simulcast on TV, was sacked by both CBS Radio and MSNBC for racial insensitivity. His offence? To refer, in a moment of light-hearted banter, to the African-American athletes of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as "nappy-headed hos". Imus later apologised profusely.
Last week in Australia, Alan Jones, a pompous radio host, was criticised by the Australian Communications and Media Authority for broadcasts inciting racial violence. His offence? In the middle of an extremely explosive situation in Cronulla, to laugh when a caller suggested that "If you shoot one, the rest will run", and reading the comments of a listener who suggested that bikie gangs (who "do a lot of good", apparently) travel down to Cronulla and scare the Lebanese youth back off to the Western Suburbs.
ACMA also found, to quote the SMH article, “that comments made by Jones in his December 8 broadcast implied that people of Middle Eastern background were responsible for raping women in western Sydney.”
Unlike Imus, Jones did not exactly apologise. Instead, he launched into a scathing attack on ACMA, saying that its personnel had "no talkback experience", as if somehow you have to have endured a certain requisite number of hours of listening to the likes of Jones rant in order to work out whether his words are distasteful. And he was defended not only by his radio station, but by the Prime Minister, no less.
These two stories about multi-millionaire white broadcasters exercising appalling judgement when talking about minorities, though, say a great deal about each society.
America is hypersensitive on the subject of race. I guess a legacy of slavery will do that to you – although a legacy of genocide doesn’t seem to have achieved the same result in Australia. And racially insensitive comments, even ones delivered jokingly, as Imus’ were, are instant career suicide. Imus’ doom was sealed once the advertisers began dropping his programme in droves – even though I suspect the two weeks’ suspension initially imposed by CBS combined with a sincere apology would have been a more appropriate punishment. You can guarantee he won’t make the same mistake again anytime soon.
And if Imus had been employed by Channel Nine, as Tony Greig was when he made that appalling comment about an Asian wife at a wedding opposite a cricket ground, he probably wouldn’t even have copped two weeks.
Men like Jones and Imus are labelled "shock jocks". But really, I’ve never been less shocked than when I read about Jones’ treatment of the Cronulla riots. What he broadcasted was far worse than anything Imus said – and not in the least bit light-hearted. If a gang really had taken the comments Jones broadcasted seriously, blood might have been spilt. Well, more blood.
I’m not saying Jones’ words actually exacerbated the Cronulla riots – his regular audience of octogenarians and cabbies probably kept well away from Cronulla throughout the incident. As, of course, Jones did, instead suggesting bikie gangs head to the area, because their opponents were cowards and would be scared away. As opposed, I suppose, to Jones’ own bravery in hiding behind a microphone in a comfortable studio, sending out bikie gangs to do his bidding. But his broadcast was at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous.
I don’t know that we need to go completely overboard, American-style, whenever a talk show host makes a poorly-thought out comment on race. We probably wouldn’t have any broadcasters left. But I’d rather we went the full Imus than did nothing. And I’d certainly rather we had politicians like Barack Obama, who immediately criticised Imus, than a Prime Minister who thinks it’s appropriate to rush to the side of a broadcaster who’s tried to start a racist gang war at Cronulla Station. And worse yet, knows there’s votes in doing so.
In a time of considerable social unrest, when many on both sides of an ugly feud were losing control and there was a genuine risk of loss of life, broadcasters should not be making things worse. Broadcasters have certain social responsibilities – it’s part of the deal when you get a license – and Jones utterly failed to discharge his. A two week suspension would have been the least 2GB could have done to send the message that its broadcasters have to be kept to a certain standard of behaviour. Anyone foolish or malign enough to explicitly, or even implicitly, condone violence, should not be on the airwaves.
But 2GB did nothing, of course. Because Jones is the station’s cash cow, with a seemingly unbreakable connection to the hearts and minds of – well, not Struggle St, but to people who are doing quite well for themselves, actually, but think they’ve come from Struggle St, and resent anyone who they think might take their hard-earned gains away from them. Like migrants. The Howard Battlers, in other words. And that’s why the Prime Minister’s only too happy to jump into the trench alongside Brigadier Jones, both blowing their dogwhistles furiously, from the same score.
And that’s also why Australian advertisers, funnily enough, didn’t dump Jones the way American companies dumped Imus.
Which makes this a job for ACMA. But unfortunately, what with being a faceless bureaucracy and all, they seem better at criticising than taking positive action. Rather like Jones himself, in fact. It’s high time the media regulator sent round a bikie gang or two to see if they can scare him.