As people marvel at the immediacy of news via the internet, it is easy to overlook the fact that old fashioned steam radio has been doing this for 70 years or more. The words come out of the announcer’s mouth and they are worming into listeners’ ears in real time. And therein lie the potential problems.
While many more active media consumers gave up on stultified radio years ago for podcasts, online streaming and other portable digital tools that open the world to our ears, most people still rely on either parish pump local stations, Barnesy and Farnsy FM and talkback shockjocks that pander to the fears, prejudice and ignorance of their listeners.
The common view is that most talkback listeners are old – lonely, bored people, overwhelmed by change, taking solace in strong opinions and feeling reassured by the tones of an authoritative tub-thumper. But in recent years, audiences have been supplemented by the middle-to-late baby boomers, who grew up with rock radio, but who have migrated to talk radio after growing tired of the same handful of rock ‘classics’ that the mullets on FM radio have been recycling since the early 1980s (the Run From Paradise generation?).
Middle aged or old, though, these people generally don’t read books or pay much attention to broadsheet newspapers; their primary source for news is commercial talk radio and commercial television. Consequently, they tend to adhere to the view that the economy is going to the dogs, that crime is out of control, that the country is being swamped by Al Qaeda-trained Islamists and that climate change is a plot by communist greens to establish a One World government.
To maintain these contrary-to-evidence convictions, they listen religiously to shockjocks talkback whose job it is to manufacture outrage and keep their listeners in a state of continual indignation and anger at an invisible and indefinable “they” who are ruining the country and destroying their memories of an idealised past.
Of course, we’ve had talkback radio for decades now and, for the most part, it is a vague background noise that many of us are aware of only when we get into a taxi. The supposition was it would die off as the last of that pre-WWII generation disappeared to the meet the great Burl Ives in the sky.
But talkback has gained a second wind in recent years as politicians, led by John Howard, beat a path to its door. In Howard’s case, the motivation was pretty clear. He was speaking to his constituency – the old (in body or mind) and afraid and conservative. And he could be guaranteed an easy ride by the right-wing non-journalist entertainers who were grateful to have at last a political leader who sanctioned the airing of their audience’s prejudices under the guise of an attack on “political correctness”.
Just why Julia Gillard should legitimise these clowns by appearing on their programs is not exactly clear. The reception she received recently from that self-aggrandising windbag Alan Jones, who dared to chastise her for being late before calling her a liar, should have been enough – I would have thought – to put a blackban on his program and to send a mildly threatening letter to 2GB’s licence holder about broadcast standards.
To the issue of standards, old journalists like this blogger – who came up through radio – are shocked at what is allowed to be broadcast these days. Journalists of my generation were taught that to maintain a broadcasting licence and to meet one’s professional code of ethics, one was expected to observe laws concerning undisclosed paid comment, sub-judice, contempt of court, racial vilification, incitement to riot, defamation and just plain public decency. But apparently no longer.
Australian commercial radio was deregulated in the early 1990s and since then a climate of anything goes seems to have taken hold to the point where shock jocks can say just about anything with relative impunity – the only risk being a mild slap over the wrist by the ACMA (formerly the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal) or perhaps a mention on the ABC’s Media Watch, a program that few people see, unfortunately.
(Incidentally, anyone who is interested in the development of talkback radio in recent years should get hold of a paper by the acknowledged expert in this area, Professor Graeme Turner of the University of Queensland, ‘Some Things We Should Know About Talkback Radio’. It’s not available online without registration, but you can hear his summary here.)
Essentially, those changes in the early 1990s led to the unravelling of the public service obligations of radio, including the provision of an independent news service. So radio reinvented itself, as Turner explains, by using its non-journalist talkback hosts not just to read news but to break news (and make and break governments). They do this by mobilising and polarising public opinion, with little respect for facts, fairness, balance or any of the ethics of professional journalism. And they do it for dollars.
The nadir (at least to date) of this shameless rabble rousing and stirring of public raw emotion for ratings points and advertising contracts (which is what this industry is fundamentally about) was Alan Jones’ provocative comments during the racial disturbances in Cronulla in late 2005. ACMA later found that Jones’ broadcasts were likely to vilify people of Middle Eastern descent and encourage violence.
Of course, Jones is still on air, as are all the other propagators of hatred and fear – entertainers masquerading as journalists who pollute the public arena with deliberate falsehoods and propaganda. The difference now, of course, is they have a new generation of careerist Liberal Party politicians who grew up with One Nation, who speak their language and who peddle their own wingnut opinion to raise their profile through talkback.
Call me old fashioned, but does anyone else wonder just WHO is in charge here? WHY does no-one complain about this? Are there standards? If so, why are they not enforced? Where are the civilised voices speaking out against these practices? And what are the consequences for our democracy of a system that legitimises the deliberate peddling of falsehoods and hatred for commercial advantage to people whose primary source of news is these very licence holders?
Of course, the right-wing defenders of talkback will respond to this critique as an attack on freedom of speech and open public debate. But no-one is arguing against the right of people to vigorously debate issues of public interest through the media. But a radio station, using the publicly owned airwaves, has a primary obligation to providing its audiences with the truth before it sets its attack dogs off the leash. It has an obligation to declare the commercial interests of its licence holders in pushing particular policy viewpoints. It has an obligation to our principles of justice and to the responsibilities that come with a radio licence.
If this is just too hard, can I suggest two courses of action. Firstly, those who are fed up with the behaviour of the talkback demagogues should organise a boycott of the products of those companies who advertise on these stations. Money is what Alan Jones and the rest of them are fundamentally about. So hit them where it hurts. Secondly, we should pressure our policymakers to re-regulate the industry, give proper teeth to those who police it and to take off air for good those who breach publicly agreed standards.
Oh, and Media Watch should run for an hour, not 15 minutes.
Dial-Up Death Threats Do Not Deter as Shock Jocks Maintain the Coalition’s Rage (Peter Hartcher)
Tony Windsor Calls for Talkback Calm after Death Threats (ABC News)
Climate of Hate Ramps Up from Right-Wing Populists (Clive Hamiltion, Crikey)