The controversy swirling around Alan Jones and the withdrawal of more than 70 sponsors and advertisers from his 2GB radio show illustrates that the absolute power of the mainstream media to determine who speaks – and what they speak about – is no more.
Less than a decade ago, anyone who sought to influence public debate – community activists, corporate leaders, politicians, academics, billionaires – had to pass through the mainstream media gatekeepers to broadcast their message.
Today, anyone with an internet connection, a modern website and some social media savvy holds at least some of the keys to the influence kingdom.
The most interesting aspect of the Jones saga, and the radical changes to the influence landscape it highlights, is the unaccustomed light it shines on power.
As Jones told his listeners Monday morning, their “right” to boycott his show did not extend to “the right to attempt cyber-bullying of people who listen to the program or advertise on it… These false petitions are anything but civilised…”
Australians don’t like talking about power. We don’t like analysing how it distributes many of the benefits and opportunities generated by our economic, political and social system. We don’t like discussing how important a distributive mechanism it should be for the goods and opportunities on offer.
Instead, we focus on our guiding philosophy that the world should – and so it does – run according to rules that apply to all of us equally. We believe these rules offer us a level playing field for a contest of ideas that admits all comers and determines the winner by a free and fair fight.
The powerless are as invested in this myth as the powerful.
For the powerless, the merit myth is a bulwark against despair. It promises them that if their ideas are sound and they play fair, they’ll have as much chance as anyone else to influence the shape of our world. The alternative – that’s it’s not what you know but who you know – makes a mockery of not just what they’ve invested in their own education and lives, but that of their children.
The powerful – men like Jones – have both their pride and the luxury of a self-focused life at stake. It’s because the powerful believe they got where they are on merit that they can dismiss the “bleating” of feminists, Indigenous Australians, the disabled and gay people. This leaves them free to enjoy the fruits of their hard work without guilt, knowing the merit principle is at work and all is right with the world.
A more sophisticated understanding of power would allow us to dismiss Jones’s complaint about cyber “bullying” out of hand.
In fact, consumers are entitled to organise in whatever ways they like to influence the corporations who profit from their business. How effectively they do this – the numbers they muster, the cost of their action in dollar terms – will determine the extent of their influence.
While I’m open to arguments that money ought not to speak in our society as loudly as it does, it seems odd that debate should only surface in the rare moment when the collective pockets of the many – rather than the usual swollen ones of the corporate few – are wielding influence on national debate,
The word “bully” also sees Jones play the victim card in a highly unconvincing way.
The definition of bully – a person who uses his superior strength or power to harm or intimidate someone weaker – implies that it is not the influencing of others that is wrong, but the improper use by the strong of their superior strength to get their way.
But the Jones v Citizenry fight is more than fair. Not only has it taken thousands of persistent and well-organised citizens to match the power of a single man whose influence has determined the national agenda for years, but petitions and phone calls are well within the bounds of civilised forms of protest. No websites have been brought down; no advertisers' premises stormed.
Indeed, it’s hard to escape the sense that for Jones, the real problem with the cyber campaign is its effectiveness. Do what you like as long as it’s impotent, his generous offer to listeners of their “right” to turn him off suggests. But don’t try to have your voice heard and succeed. That’s my prerogative.
But a sophisticated understanding of power would also curtail any “People Power” dances around the maypole. Not just in the short-term, but forever.
Sure the power of the internet and social technology has let David have his day with Goliath in the Jones affair. Indeed, if the consumer David keeps up the pressure, he may even succeed in bringing the Jones Goliath down. But for every Alan Jones there is a Waleed Aly: a powerful (usually male) radio presenter who wields his influence responsibly and with a certain – to use an old-fashioned term – noblesse oblige.
In the same way many of us may be revelling in the success of the Destroy the Joint movement because we despise Alan Jones, the next target of a cyber-mob might please us less. Say, another David Hicks or Muhamed Haneef.
The truth is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely no matter who wields it – a media mogul or personality or a citizen group. It was this problem of corruption that the rule of law and the merit principle were designed to upset.
Democracy evolved with checks on power for this reason. How we can apply our sure knowledge about the corruptive impact of absolute power on our democracy, business and social world to both the mainstream and social media – to the media mogul and the cyber mob alike – remains the 21st century’s greatest challenge.
Dr Leslie Cannold is an author, researcher and medical ethicist with an adjunct position at Monash University. View her full profile here.
Boycott Shines Light on Problems of Power The Drum - ABC Online