Management of Sydney radio station 2GB announced
on Sunday that it was removing advertising from the Alan Jones breakfast program for an indefinite period, at a cost to the station of $80,000 per day.
The action was unprecedented. It followed social mediapressure on advertisers to boycott the program after Jones violated the unwritten code of common decency in remarks he made about the prime minister's late father at a university student function.
Jones' apology was unconvincing, and many people remain appalled. It is a testament to the relatively new phenomenon of social media that it is able to empower ordinary people to bring Jones and 2GB management to heel when government broadcasting regulation cannot.
It is perhaps an example of the 'people power' that is more usually thought of in the context of overthrowing unpopular political regimes such as occurred in the Arab Spring.
However we need to remember that what has happened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has shown us that people power can create more problems than it solves. The people are manipulated by other powerful groups, or their action may precipitate a power vacuum. As a result, many who supported the revolution may wish for a return to the dictatorship they loathed.
People power can also become mob rule, which is a long way from its democratic aspirations. Mob rule is tyranny of the majority and the rule of passion over reason. The rights of small people with less audible voices are not taken into consideration in the way they are with properly functioning laws and regulations.
That is why it is better to work within the regulatory system. People power is a last resort that is justified only if the regulatory authority is unable to fix the problem.
In the case of broadcaster Kyle Sandilands, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has demonstrated its impotence, despite the restrictions it placed on 2DAY-FM's licence. There is no indication that Sandilands has reformed, in the sense of becoming contrite. Nor is it likely that the ACMA can change Jones.
With regard to advertisers on Jones' program, the social media organisers have outsmarted 2GB's Macquarie Radio Network management. But it is unlikely that the collective rage against Jones' behaviour will be sustained, respectable, and ultimately effective, unless the passion is accompanied by reasoned argument. If not, it could even vindicate Jones and 2GB management's claims of 'cyber bullying'.
It is encouraging that there are signs of reason in the Facebook groups spearheading the campaign. 'Sack Alan Jones' organisers Nic Lochner and Vinay Orekondy responded in a cool headed manner to 2GB management's decision to cancel advertising on the program: 'This campaign has constantly called for civility and decency in public debate — it will continue to do so — and we have gone to great strides to ensure that discourse is conducted appropriately.'
Similarly, the 'call to arms' of the group Destroy the Joint is 'Keep Calm and Destroy the Joint'.
Calm is not exactly reasoned argument, but it helps to create the necessary disposition. It is important that such groups do not simply destroy the careers of rogue broadcasters, but also work to improve the regulatory system that allows them to flourish.
Another media pressure group, Friends of the ABC, appeals to a different constituency but has always maintained a good balance between activism and contributing to the shaping of public policy through activities such as the preparation of submissions to inquiries. GetUp! covers a range of issues, and is similarly involved in providing policy input.
Forcing 2GB to cancel the advertising was a spectacular victory but the social media groups should not expect more capitulation from station management or Jones, especially if their action is not accompanied by developed rationale. Moreover it may look as if Jones is being bullied, as he claims, and the public could feel sorry for him.