When future historians reflect on Alan Jones, they will regard his 35-year career dominating Sydney breakfast radio as a watershed in public affairs. Before the radio king, media elites were able to define the big political debates by embracing a sort of herd mentality. Those who sought a different point of view had few alternatives beyond the newspaper tabloids.
Things started to change when talk radio exploded on the scene in the 1980s. It was Jones who helped “the vox populi to find expression”, as the leading American intellectual Irving Kristol once said of the talkback genre. His success in ratings and influence – first at 2UE, then at 2GB – meant the media establishment had ceased to set the political agenda.
How has Jones become a national institution? It’s because he has a unique combination of qualities. He is a very big personality in the true sense, with immense authority. He is extraordinarily witty. (A collection of Jones jokes would fill a minor anthology.) He connects with not just battlers, but Olympic athletes, Hollywood actors and former US presidents. His dealings with listeners – from his morning exchanges to his relentless letter-writing and email correspondence – brings out his empathy with many ordinary Australians.
But, above all, Jones reflects the thoughts and attitudes of Middle Australia. The prevailing wisdom in the press is that Jones’ popularity is based on tapping into rage. In fact, it’s not anger but empathy, an obvious kinship with that part of the nation who cop what Jones calls “a gutful” of political correctness and bureaucratic red tape.
By transforming the radio interview, the Oxford-educated former prime ministerial speechwriter changed the relationship between the politicians and broadcast journalism. Thanks partly to his hard-working team, he bases his interviews on careful research of each subject and on a superb instinctive mastery of interrogation.
As a result, his readiness to interrupt, his agonised response when denied a satisfactory answer and his dismissiveness of fools has made him compulsive listening. (I remember this former English grammar teacher berating some unfortunate director-general of education for failing to know what a sentence was. The hapless bureaucrat hung up, prompting Jones to remark: “I suspect the boss of NSW education can’t tell students what a sentence is.”)
Jones has been a pervasive influence in the lead-up to federal and state elections, ruffling feathers but respected by leaders of the major parties. He has interviewed every prime minister (but one) since John Gorton, and no one has ever won an election without appearing on his show. When he announced his resignation from radio this week, Jones immediately received tributes from the Prime Minister and the federal Opposition Leader.
He has been in the middle of the biggest stories of our time: from battles over native title, waterfront and super league in the 1990s to asylum-seeker standoffs and wars on terror in the 2000s to the climate debates of more recent times. He can talk about the opera and the arts as easily as he talks about racing and rugby league.
Of course, Jones is biased, but so what? The much-vaunted journalistic creed of “objectivity” is mostly a fiction in the Canberra press gallery: every day and every story, even at the ABC, involves subjective judgments.
Besides, Jones is no ideologue. As veteran Labor adviser Bruce Hawker told Sky News this week, Jones defies easy categorisation. He has, for instance, been a critic of free trade and free-market reforms. In recent years, he has sided with the Greens over opposition to coal seam gas.
By way of full disclosure, I should declare I have been a friend of Jones since 1988. He had just completed his impressive four-year tenure as the Australian Wallabies rugby coach; I had just been selected to play #11 for my high school’s first XV rugby team in the NSW Associated Schools competition. (It was the only time, incidentally, I was a left-winger.)
After Jones delivered a keynote address to our school assembly, he personally delivered the prized jerseys to us players. He and I immediately hit it off. Ever since, even when we’ve disagreed, I have found him to be genuinely caring and adored by so many people from – and this is important – all walks of life.
Over Jones’ long tenure, there were bound to be misjudgments. In 2012, he made some crassly insensitive remarks about Julia Gillard’s father at a private gathering, which were leaked to the press. Ditto his on-air abuse of Jacinda Ardern in 2018, which also cost Jones credibility and his network millions in advertising revenue.
Still, the failures dim next to the overall legacy: Alan Jones is the most consequential figure in Australian radio. Indeed, he has become such a ubiquitous figure on the airwaves that it is hard imagining a morning without him.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.