2006-11-21

Jonestown: the power and the myth of Alan Jones / Chris Masters. (Allen & Unwin, 2006) Review

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by Neil Godfrey

This review is very difficult for me to write given my past student experience with Alan Jones. I’m too involved emotionally and know it’s not like my other reviews and other reviewers will surely give a more rounded view of the book. But here goes anyway — at least pending the time when I will have another look back on this review of mine and reshape it to give a more objective chapter by chapter overview of the contents, sources and presentations.

The witnesses and evidence marshalled by Chris Masters demonstrate this most loved and most hated of Australian media shock jocks is a lonely empty man. After personally experiencing him as a French teacher for 4 years and both admiring (relatively briefly) and loathing (mostly loathing) him I was compelled to buy this biography in hopes of better understanding the nature of the man who left such a mark on my student life and has since played a prominent role, for both good and ill, in national sporting and public affairs. I can well understand why Masters observes how Jones has always had his admirers and loathers as he traces his careers through teaching at Brisbane Boys Grammar, Sydney Kings, joining Malcolm Fraser’s staff as a speech writer, coaching national and other high profile football teams, and currently influential media personality and self-appointed advisor/critic/supporter of political and corporate leaders.

If the Superman philosophy of Nietzsche is associated with the amoral power of personal will overpowering all before it (whether reason or evidence or even simple compassion for common humanity’s sake) and a despising as unworthy such Christian values as humility, then one might wonder if Alan Jones is the very emulation of this Nietzschean Superman. But the biography of Chris Masters leaves too much room to doubt that Jones has ever seriously read, let alone mulled deeply over, a serious philosophical treatise of any kind. Masters suggests another, and simpler and even pitiable, explanation: that the evidence of Jones’ life demonstrates many of the characteristics of pathological narcissism.

Critics of Masters’ biography have made much of its supposed homophobic attack on Jones. My reading found nothing abusive or prurient, but rather a simple healthy, tempered treatment of this side of his life, one for which I could feel honest acceptance. If anything it helped me to evince a little compassion for a victim of a culture that has long obliged him to hide and even attempt to deny his sexuality. And of course with one’s sexuality goes one’s essential being, hence, perhaps, Jones’ apparent incapacity for a consistent personal integrity (witness his apparent tendency to simply remain oblivious to his frequent dramatic back-flips (some discussed below), a personality swayed from one view or cause to its opposite according to the benefit (whether monetary or more personal) offered at the time. It is also quite apparent that Jones has expressed more concern with hiding his sexuality from his conservative radio audience power base than others in recent years. He also hides from them his feelings of crudely expressed disgust for these same “Struggle Street” people he professes to bat for, feelings that only fellow studio personnel get to see and hear expressed with the foulest obscenities. (Another occasion for his over the top display of obscenity is when he’s “being one of the boys” among “boys” who themselves only occasionally take to him as a true friend.)

Jones is one of those who appear to seek personal fulfillment by controlling others to the point of owning them as his own “family” (but also capable of ejecting them savagely.) It is against this background that one best understands his ongoing desire to coach another football team, even at his own cost. He has continued to put out feelers for this opportunity in places as far off as Ireland ever since his demise as a national Rugby and then club League coach. His preference has always clearly been for young talented and good-looking boys or men, but when those men are found to be more bound to their wives or girl-friends, or even to God (as in the case of Wallaby star Nick Farr-Jones), it appears that jealousy prompts Jones to remove them to a distant relationship. Such rivals for loyalty are not tolerated.

As a past student of Jones I could well relate to Masters portrait of Jones’ habit of dividing those under his direction (students, football teams) between special favourites and ‘hopeless’ nobodies (“amorphous jellyfish” is recalled in the book; my schooldays recall “spineless gutless jellyfish”). That would be bad enough, but Jones’ is still well known (as he was in his teacher days) for selecting regular targets for the most abusive verbal bullying. Masters also relates rare incidents when it was only threat of physical retaliation by another that ever appeared to cower him. When confronted over a withering insult of a boy that included a comment that he had “no brains”, he could only retort he was speaking “the truth”! It was his this sort of behaviour, along with the appearance of something unhealthy (though by all accounts in fact innocent) about the undue private and after-hours attention he gave his favourite boys, that ended his teaching careers at Brisbane Grammar and Kings.

One of the most dangerous attributes of this media personality who prides himself on taking up worthy causes, notably for “Struggle Street” battlers, is his inveterate disregard for research and investigating facts. This has inevitably led him to display appalling judgment of both persons and issues as he blindly takes up sword and cudgel on behalf of a murderer despite complete absence of any evidence to overturn the conviction, corrupt police officers, and of sportsmen guilty of repeated public and woman-beating offences. The utter emptiness of the sound and fury of his radio crusading monologues is exposed under cross examination (as in the Cash for Comment and the Fine Cotton hearings) where he is invariably made to look ridiculous. No matter, however — those courtroom audiences are not his radio following.

It is this habit that suggests his inner emptiness, and reminds me of Yeats’ lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Jones will belligerently argue one view one day and the opposite the next without batting an eyelid, even gallingly denying, ignoring or shouting down any attempt by others to expose the inconsistencies, as he clearly did after backtracking on his advocacy to turn Australian rivers inland; of his humourless bullying and intimidating persona, most worryingly even of government leaders; of his self-sacrificing generosity to “worthy” battlers; of his apparent inability to distinguish between personal virtue and corruption of a level that even threatens democratic institutions? Chris Masters recognizes the many who love and admire him, but also the far greater number who have seen or felt the psychological poison and abuse that spills from a side of Jones those admirers do not see.

One of the hopes Chris Masters expresses in writing this biography is that politicians and media owners and corporate managers will learn to stand up to him, not to be intimidated. Hence he demonstrates the evidence that for all of Jones’ posturing that he represents the mainstream (and even despite at least some of his causes really being on the side of compassion, as when he raises money for fire and flood victims) he in fact lives on the margins and his influence really is marginal: pointing to Jones’ influence being less extensive than is often credited, not to mention the costs of succumbing to his campaigns of intimidation (e.g. destroying hopes of much needed police reform in NSW). Although listener surveys show him well ahead among those aged over 70, he only ranks 5th out of the total listener market.

I explained that my personal interest in the biography was aroused by the fact that Jones impacted on my life when he was a French teacher of mine at Brisbane Grammar School for 4 years. I was relieved that Masters was able to show me I was far from alone in my perception of Jones openly singling out a few favourites, consigning all others to the “hopeless” basket and of his reign of fear and verbal abuse. But I wondered how he missed what was surely one of the most outlandish attempts at discipline when Jones actually attempted to give the whole student body a Saturday morning detention for failing to rehearse the sports “war cry” to standard! Surely a classic case of a trait Masters knows well, his inability to know when he goes too far.

As a student of his I both loathed and feared his bullying of a few targeted fellow students, and when I later heard on the news of his coaching the Australian Wallabies to their Grand Slam win of the British Isles my sympathies gushed immediately to the team members — and I was not the least surprised to read soon afterwards of prominent defections from the national team citing Jones as the reason.

But despite the enormous damage Jones has done to so many in his various controversial careers (not to deny much good he also does to those he takes under his wing) I appreciated Masters’ biography for giving me a deeper insight and appreciation of the humanity that is sometimes too well hidden behind the worst (and best) of us.

I admit that I found devouring the narrative of such a pathological and destructive personality (can the good he does ever excuse the extent of the harm?) at times too depressing. How, I sometimes wondered, could anyone spend so much time as Masters obviously did on such a baleful personality? At least I found the insights, the witnesses drawn upon, and the case studies worth equipping myself with, the better to be prepared on encountering others and issues befuddled or otherwise affected by this man.

But Masters wants to do more simply analyze a single person. This biography is also a depressing indictment on the cowardice of media, corporate and political leaders who succumb to Jones’ bullying. It is especially a despairing indictment of the travesty of the weakness of Australia’s national media standards control. Findings of guilt over dishonesty at so many levels seem to be little more than water off a duck’s back to Jones. I must confess to feelings of visceral delight whenever Masters pointed to Jones’ embarrassment over someone reminding him of his arrest in a public London toilet when he attempts to take the high moral ground against the wrong target. Suffering seems to have made Jones less compassionate, only more determined to be the top bully.

Shame on the ABC for its refusal to publish this book. I could see no reason for such a decision from the book’s contents for this, and am left another notch concerned at what seems to be a growing tendency of conservative forces to control this public medium — if not even to succumb to one of the very reasons for the book in the first place: to expose the threat to our democracy from too much fear of this radio shock-jock.

Since reading the book I am even more appalled at the earlier publicity surrounding it that accused Masters of defaming and throwing homophobic insults at Jones for political reasons. Such criticism, when weighed in the light of the book itself, smacks of the worst of the very sorts of empty ignorant intimidating diatribes that one would expect from Jones himself. If only Alan himself had a little real personal courage to face his own inner self I suspect even he could gain a lot from reading this account of his life and person. But I can’t see Alan ever being that brave, sadly.

One might also check a response by the author to many predictable (and predictably misinformed) criticisms in The Australian newspaper.

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