Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Alan Jones on a stick: Australia's culture wars and the flight of civility

Lock, stock and shock jock.
There was something circular about Jenna Price being intereviewed by 2GB's Chris Smith on the radio yesterday. Price is one of the people behind the Destroy the Joint Facebook page, and also teaches journalism, writes op-ed pieces for the Canberra Times, and has children. Smith, of course, is a colleague of Alan Jones in the 2GB stable. It was an encounter fraught with the potential for conflict - two articulate players, one on either side of the fence in the context of the Alan Jones debacle, meeting in the same arena where Jones has made so many people angry: the sound studio.

From the outset Smith went on the attack. The dynamics of the sound studio took over from the start of the encounter, which was ironic given that the topic for discussion was Alan Jones' poor reputation for civility among a large group of people living in Sydney. Hence the circularity. It's hard to critique a type of discourse when you are doing so in the same context within which that discourse normally takes place. A shock jock interviewing someone on the topic of how another shock jock offended that person. And with both shock jocks working for the same employer. Given Smith's withering onslaught, Price did well to maintain her composure. Smith attempted to render Price personally accountable for every ill emanating from the online campaign against Jones, talked over her, and attempted to provoke her to an angry response. But his efforts were hobbled by a fundamental ignorance of the dynamics of social media participation.

I mentioned yesterday that Macquarie Radio Network executive chairman Russell Tate had lambasted the social media campaign on account of unspecified "threats" received by 2GB advertisers. Smith echoed his boss' anger and thankfully went further, repeating on-air for the first time some of the messages that advertisers had received. ("Small businesses", as if that makes any difference; perhaps in radioland 2GB the epithet "small" increases a company's eligibility for outraged victimhood.) The onslaught of messages against Jones had prevented some businesses from doing their jobs, that being answering customers' online requests for products, he said. Some of the messages were deeply offensive. Customer relations staff were seen going home in tears at the end of the day. Well, finally we get some idea of what was actually happening. Tate should have been as explicit yesterday morning.

Price stressed that the Destroy the Joint Facebook page had a policy against offensive speech, and noted that similar messages were always taken down from the page when they were noticed by administrators. But a group of people administering a Facebook page is not a monolithic organisation as a radio station is. A Facebook page administrator does not have any influence over how a person on Twitter disports him- or herself in relation to a 2GB advertiser with a website that allows commenting, or with an email address that is public. The speech of people who participated in the social media campaign targeting Alan Jones' advertisers cannot be slated home to the account of people such as Price. In fact, Price emphasised her personal committment to civility in online communications, all the while asking for - and getting - free air in the studio as Smith attempted to drown out her words with his own, stronger, voice. The irony meter slid hopelessly off the scale.

It's a long interview and worth listening to. A number of topics were covered, including Alan Jones' propensity to inciting violence, and his track record in this vein during the lead-up to the December 2005 Cronulla riots. Smith tried valiantly to play down Jones' role in that affair but this sort of nimble footwork by a 2GB shock jock would merely have further angered those who participated in the social media campaign against Alan Jones. Like the 45-minute "apology" Jones gave after being caught out saying John Gillard "died of shame", Smith's performance yesterday with regard to the Cronulla riots merely indicates that 2GB radio announcers do not believe that Jones did anything wrong all those years ago. It is difficult to see how progress can be made on the count of public civility if 2GB still harbours resentment over something that was officially sanctioned, and for which Jones received a public rebute from the media authority. How can the two sides agree on the nature of appropriate conduct in the media if there is disagreement on such basic things?

It's hard to see how they can. But such debates are part of the culture wars in Australia, as we saw later the same day when Piers Akerman appeared on the ABC's Q and A. The same kind of issues popped up, and the same fundamental lack of understanding about how social media works. We had Akerman sagely pointing a trembling finger at "The Twitter", and comparing a Facebook page (which he knows nothing about) to a blog (he once moderated one in a professional capacity). And there was the same propensity for the blokes - Akerman, the Liberals' Christopher Pyne, and ex-Labor MP Lindsay Tanner - to talk over the top of the women. Host Tony Jones was forced to step in on a number of occasions in order to ensure Labor MP Kate Ellis had enough air to reasonably present her opinion on the panel.

At the end of the day the main issue being discussed in these forums was civility in public discourse. Smith came down hard on Price because he thought - or pretended to think - that Price condoned hate speech, when she has no control over how individuals using social media comport themselves, other than by removing comments from a Facebook page to which she holds administrative rights. Smith was angry because unwitting 2GB advertisers had become caught up in someone else's battle, and their staff had been exposed to hate speech. Price was angry because Alan Jones has a documented track record of denigrating women, including the prime minister. Akerman was angry because ...

Oh well. But the problem of civility remains unresolved. Civility is important online, and it's especially important in all social contexts for women. I have been guilty of incivility myself, to a degree, and the encounters talked about in this blog post make me feel ashamed because the public sphere should be as inclusive as possible. Everyone should feel comfortable participating in public debate, and partisan approaches to any concievable topic erode the claims of respect that all people are entitled to when they meet in a public place. And a politically polarised issue is one that is more likely to foster a deterioration to ad hominem attacks because, freighted as it must be with buried animus, the terms of old scores will rise and ask to be settled.

But that kind of score-settling talk appears to be more popular in the public sphere than ever before. I've pointed on a previous occasion to the fact that biased media is more profitable than so-called "objective" media, as this Economist story shows.  Does it matter? After all, what is the alternative to ideology as a means of organising personal identity and finding a comfortable place with respect to others in the community? I've talked before about the consequences of the influence of forces other than political ideology on the dynamic of social interactions and on the nature of public institutions. Are the two camps we find in Australian society merely tribal in nature? Possibly only the tone of discourse suffers when tribes are characterised by ideological allegiance, but can we do better?

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