Alan Jones' outburst sparked fury but also rallied supporters
Having made a career of pushing the boundaries, Australian broadcaster Alan Jones has now taken on the last taboo: death.
Jones, who could be described as a right-wing populist, among other things, recently told the Sydney University Liberal Club (note: in Australian party politics Liberal means conservative) that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's father "died of shame" brought on by his daughter's propensity for lying.
A repulsive thing to say under any circumstances, but consider the context: John Gillard had been dead for two weeks and the Prime Minister's bond with him was well known.
Mr Gillard's pride in his daughter was equally a matter of public record: during the 2010 election he told reporters that he was "proud of my daughter all the time.
The English language doesn't contain enough words - awesome, great, fantastic, tremendous. It's all of those multiplied by 10".
Though shock jocks, and Jones in particular, have got away with an awful lot for a long time, one might have thought this vicious intrusion into private grief and rancid distortion of a loving relationship to score a cheap political point would be regarded as beyond the pale.
Not quite. Having offered a Clayton's apology, Jones went back to work and his supporters went into bat for him.
A senior Liberal MP said ordinary Australians weren't interested because it didn't affect their hip pockets. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan sought to recast the controversy as one man's brave, lonely fight against a vast, left-wing conspiracy: "Most Australians do not like a brawl involving 100,000 people against one. And here we have an attempt to ruin someone over an impromptu remark made at a private function on the spur of the moment and later withdrawn, together with a public apology."
The 100,000 in question are ordinary Australians who signed a petition calling for advertisers to boycott Jones' show; the one is a massively well-connected public figure who revels in his ability to influence events. If anything, the apology compounded rather than mitigated the offence: Jones compared people like him who don't like Labor's policies to diggers facing death at Gallipoli, adding, "A lot of people today feel they have got their backs to the door." Jones earns A$5 million ($6.22 million) a year.
John Laws, his predecessor as Sydney's king of the airwaves, said advertisers who have withdrawn support would be back because Jones "has a lot of listeners and a lot of people who accept what he says. Consequently, he would have a lot of people who would buy the products that he would endorse. Of course they'll come back.
"I mean, it's a commercial world."
Jones' outburst was the latest in a stream of inflammatory statements about Australia's first female prime minister.
He has said she should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea; he's bandied around the term treason, comparing her to King Louis XV1 of France who was guillotined; he's read out emails from listeners calling her "a lying bitch".
Jones' justification for this vileness seems to be that Gillard and other female politicians are "wrecking the joint."
This would come as a surprise to the tens of thousands of Kiwis who have crossed the Tasman to improve their standard of living.
And to many economists: as the SMH's Lenore Taylor pointed out this week, Australia has just clocked up its 21st consecutive year of economic growth and the current forecast is for at least 3 per cent growth for the next four years. Unemployment is 5.1 per cent compared to an annual average of 7 per cent over the past two decades. According to the Bloomberg financial news service, Australia is the developed world's fastest growing economy.
Jones is entitled to his opinion and to state it forcefully, but there are troubling implications for democracy when someone who is both a representative of and a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful can cast aside all restraint and decency in his determination to demonise an elected leader whose crime is to have different priorities and offer a different policy approach.
It smacks of a "born to rule" mentality which simply can't accept his way isn't the only way, or that democracy requires a willingness to compromise and to respect the electorate's verdict.
But Laws is right: it's a commercial world. As long as Jones continues to make money for his network and advertisers, he will continue to be paid a fortune to push his barrows (it almost goes without saying that he's a climate change denier) and poison the well of Australian public discourse.
In 1990 the Sun-Herald sacked Jones when it emerged that a column he'd written predicting an oil crisis was largely plagiarised from a Frederick Forsyth novel.
He was immediately hired by the rival Sunday Telegraph.By Paul Thomas Email Paul