Opinion

Alan Jones versus the Opera House

With 'Sydney's largest billboard' - The Sydney Opera House - now set to project a gigantic ad for "the world's richest turf race", Mumbrella's editor Vivienne Kelly looks at how one of the city's most prominent broadcasters, Alan Jones, the state's premier and some on-air antics got us to this point.

At Mumbrella, we’re often criticised for focusing too much on the FM dial in our radio coverage – particularly when it comes to the release of radio ratings surveys. Indeed, in the aftermath of the fifth radio ratings survey of 2018 in August, when we sent out a breaking news alert about Kyle & Jackie O on Kiis FM losing their FM ratings crown, many people were at pains to point out that actually, the story was that Alan Jones was still on top – of everybody, regardless of dial.

The Sydney Opera House: The city’s largest billboard?

I explained on the podcast at the time that during times of political and Prime Ministerial stability – remember those days? – the television news bulletins didn’t open with “Good evening. Day 3,103 and John Howard is still Prime Minister.” When, however, our lords and masters in Canberra lose their bananas and play an allegedly-more-grown-up version of schoolyard handball (“Sorry, Malc, you’ve had your time in the King box, back down to Dunce for you”), that will open our bulletins.

As ABC 7.30’s anchor Leigh Sales explained at a Business Chicks breakfast last week, 99 planes will land safely every day, but the news story will be the one that doesn’t.

This can, of course, leave consumers with skewed perceptions of reality and an irrational sense of doom and gloom. Everything is falling apart, everything is awful, and there is no hope.

So, this radio survey, in a bid to give the AM dial a little more love, and not just report on the negative, we focused on the 99 planes. The positive – well, Alan Jones’ win.

Jones is on air on Macquarie Media’s 2GB in Sydney from 5:30am (my actual worst nightmare) to 9:00am. GfK measures the breakfast slot for those exact times, and Jones now has a 19.0% share of the audience, up 2.1 points from last survey’s 16.9%, and his highest result in years.

Somewhat fortunately for Jones, he certainly didn’t have to lead with political stability each day – this survey period covered the latest #libspill, which saw the removal of Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. Upheavals and nonsense like this no doubt bring people to talkback radio and indeed commentators like Jones. Plus, you could say Jones felt about Turnbull the way I feel about being at work at 5:30am – that is, to say, “lol, no”. So his audience was certainly turning to him for opinion and direction at this tumultuous time.

But while the survey period encompassed the political upheaval, and further re-enforced Jones’ political clout (warranted or not), it also covered the time he copped criticism (warranted) for using the ‘n word’ on air (not the first time), and lost a massive defamation case brought against him (also, not the first time).

This begs the question, how much power does Jones actually wield, and what’s the trade off for Macquarie Media? What sized audience justifies the risks he brings with him? Sure 19.0% is huge – but even with 100%, you can’t say the ‘n word’ on air.

Add to the mix that Jones, 2GB and Brisbane-based station 4BC have been ordered to pay $3.4m (plus interest) to the Wagner family after the Supreme Court of Queensland found the broadcaster had, across 27 separate broadcasts, conveyed 76 defamatory imputations. The court described the defamation as “extremely serious” and “of the gravest kind”.

Macquarie Media and Jones are, predictably, considering their legal options in terms of appeal, but they haven’t exactly been caught unprepared.

In its annual results, released to the ASX earlier this year, Macquarie Media revealed it had, at the behest of extensive legal advice, set aside $3m for potential upcoming defamation settlements. In 2017, this figure was $0.7m. Quite a jump.

This case completely aside, I am acutely aware that the defamation laws in this country are in desperate need of an overhaul, and having proceedings brought against you (and even losing said proceedings) is by no means a reason to lose your job – but how big will 2GB, Macquarie Media, Fairfax, and, soon, Nine’s appetite for controversy be as Jones continues to attract it?

But, it’s not his own job Jones is pontificating about at the moment.

Instead, he wants the CEO of the Sydney Opera House, Louise Herron, sacked.

Did she use a hideously outdated phrase that offends and suppresses an entire race? No.

Did she cost her company upwards of $3m after, what a court determined were, “extremely serious” defamatory remarks? No.

As part of a promotion for Racing NSW’s Everest horse race on Saturday, 13 October at the Royal Randwick Race Course, Herron was refusing to allow the projection of the horses’ names and the numbers of the barriers onto the Opera House’s famous sails.

“Strident criticism will always be interpreted as bullying”, according to Jones

Herron did not want text or logos on the sails as part of the promotion.

“We have a policy that protects our world heritage status,” she told Jones in an on-air interview on Friday morning.

The Opera House has of course been used for promotions and advertising before, and (Jones is right) no projection will permanently damage or alter the actual physical structure of the famous icon – but at a time when racing and betting companies face increasing scrutiny and limitations of when they can and can’t advertise to consumers, this felt like it was a lose, lose for Herron.

Allow the Opera House to be the most prominent racing and betting ad in the country when traditional broadcasters (and indeed their associated streaming services) are subjected to tighter and tighter restrictions will no doubt trigger outrage.

(I’m aware the proposed projection isn’t about the direct display of betting odds and options, but rather the horses’ names, jockeys’ colours, the numbers on the barriers and the Everest logo, but let’s not pretend this is about what colour a short man is wearing while he gallivants on a horse. People will make the link between the “world’s richest turf race” and gambling, and there will be no protecting children from the messaging – as we apparently want to do with all our other restrictions – if it’s on the bloody Opera House).

Herron’s other option? Say no, and have Jones call on the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to sack her immediately.

Honestly, if another top-serving public servant-type gets sacked because we allow politics to so publicly infect its operations, it would be an outrage. Not to mention that this would be extra murky with the involvement of the racing and gambling industries.

Pushed again on why she was refusing to allow the projection exactly as Racing NSW wanted it, Herron said (I would argue, in a case of stating the obvious): “It’s not a billboard.”

Jones, seemingly took offence to such a declaration: “Who said? You. Who the hell do you think … who do you think you are?”

Presumably, she thinks she is the chief executive of said Opera House.

Herron: Who does she think she is?

NSW opposition leader Luke Foley did a spectacular job of adding nothing to the debate, when he told ABC Radio that he doesn’t recall outrage when the Opera House was lit up to promote Mardi Gras.

Thanks for coming in today, Foley.

Late on Friday night (well, not late, but I was getting ready to go to bed at 8:00pm, because I was horribly unwell), Berejiklian did as Jones wanted and intervened.

In what The Sydney Morning Herald called a “massive public relations and promotional victory” (for both Jones and Racing NSW), the projection will essentially be as Racing NSW wanted it all along: complete with an image of the trophy and the word ‘Everest’, which Herron had objected to. The horse names, however, according to The SMH, have been cut.

Only one hour earlier, Herron had told The SMH that putting the Everest logo onto the Opera House, even temporarily, puts its World Heritage status at risk.

“We would be seen in the global community as not respecting this jewel, this masterpiece of human creative genius that is the greatest building of the 20th Century,” she said.

She’s warned making exceptions to the Opera House’s policy is a slippery slope, and opens the sails up to branding from anyone – including her (hilarious) chosen example of Chicken Tonight.

Thus far, Berejiklian has said Herron has her support, but isn’t making further comment. How… supportive?

Prime Minister Morrison has essentially told those of us who are upset by this to go and have a lie down and get over it.

I will take you up on the offer of a lie down, ScoMo, but I suspect it is unlikely to quell my disquiet.

Supporters of the projection also argue those of us who are against it are being “elitist”, I guess somehow implying the Opera House thinks it is for those with culture and money, where as “the world’s richest turf race” is NOT a display of the wealth divide, the class system and excess.

What do you think? Is the Opera House a billboard? Do (as Jones claims) “we own” the Opera House, and therefore do “we” (whoever that is as a collective) get to decide what it is and isn’t used to promote? Where is Herron’s agency here and how far does her remit extend?

Can Jones get someone else fired? How extensive is his political influence?

If Herron does get the sack, perhaps she can hire the same spin doctor as ousted ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie and turn the narrative right around.

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