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Australia Alan Jones, the 'reverse index of certainty' and the $3.7 million payout

08:51  14 september  2018
08:51  14 september  2018 Source:   theage.com.au

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In my book Jonestown, I called it "the reverse index of certainty" – shock jock Alan Jones demonstrating maximum confidence while relying on minimal research.

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This week, the broadcaster took a big hit. Not the first, but perhaps his most damaging. Radio stations 2GB and 4BC (part owned by Fairfax Media) were ordered by the Supreme Court of Queensland to pay members of the Darling Downs based Wagner family $3.7 million in damages.

Justice Peter Flanagan found that Jones had accused them of responsibility for the deaths of 12 Grantham residents in the 2011 flood, and of being willfully blind to the truth or falsity of his accusations.

Jones's verbal attacks were described as vicious and sustained, over 31 broadcasts – no single, idle slip of a tongue by a fatigued and overworked breakfast host.

So how could it have happened?

There are plenty of examples of the nation’s most successful broadcaster excoriating people at full blast: "You are a scumbag, guttersnipe stuff" he was recorded saying at one point, presumably to a staff member. "That Amanda Vanstone could not run a pigsty". The poisoned tongue barb in 2012 that former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s father "died of shame" conforms to a savage pattern.

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Jones's past is potholed with anger. Astonishing success and power have clearly not generated fulfilment, or for that matter, vanquished loneliness. In an early career interview, Jones spoke of the phone ringing at work all week but not so often when he was home on his own. He also told of the loss of unconditional love, following the death of his beloved mother, Beth in 1982.

Sydney radio host Alan Jones, with close ally Tony Abbott, at the launch of a book 'How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia' in June.© AAP Sydney radio host Alan Jones, with close ally Tony Abbott, at the launch of a book 'How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia' in June. While I was working on Jonestown it felt to me that much of what subsequently came to emotionally sustain Jones radiates from his loyal audience, who confer unquestioningly, if not unconditional love.

Tellingly, the geography of his allegiances is located in his personal history. In 2015, Jones campaigned against a nursing home development in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, where strong local connections were maintained, Jones having coached rugby in the area in the 1980s. He also campaigned against the Shenhua coalmine in the Liverpool Plains region, where he had lived in the 1970s.

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Strongest of all is his connection to the Darling Downs in south-east Queensland. Jones grew up in Acland. He went to primary school in Oakey and boarding school at Toowoomba Grammar.

When the siren calls come in from the old school, rugby and farming networks, Jones is there.

In the latest matter, the Wagner v Harbour Radio judgment identified a local woman, Heather Brown, a friend of fifteen years, as the main source of Jones’s involvement in an issue that would not be of prime concern to his majority Sydney audience.

Brown, who runs a horse stud, is a neighbour of the Wagners. The former journalist with The Australian became an enemy of the Wagners' business initiatives, most particularly the privately developed Wellcamp airport. Concerned about being harassed and bullied, she enlisted Jones.

In communication with the broadcaster, Brown described her struggle with the Wagners as the classic battler defending farmland against brutal and corrupt profiteers. She invoked her Anzac heritage, citing uncle Reg facing up to the Germans on the Western Front.

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"Thank you for being my friend", she noted in a letter that a convinced and impassioned Jones read to air.

If they love Jones, trust comes with the package. As the broadcaster has proclaimed hundreds of times, "my listeners are my best researchers". He came to say it again in the Queensland Supreme Court.

To the gravest accusation that the deaths in Grantham resulted from the collapse of a quarry wall owned by the Wagner family, Jones was forced to admit he had no hydrological or scientific proof, just the word of witnesses. There it is – the reverse index of certainty anchoring firm opinion in fragile evidence.

Denis Wagner (second from left) and his father Henry (right) arriving at the Supreme Court in Brisbane on Wednesday.© AAP Denis Wagner (second from left) and his father Henry (right) arriving at the Supreme Court in Brisbane on Wednesday. The trial revealed that for the period of the broadcasts, Jones was assisted by five staff. None was a journalist or researcher. The judgment states, "he is largely given free reign [sic] in what he says on radio and is not subject to editorial control".

A similar weakness in the editorial process was exposed by the 1999 cash for comment saga, where Jones was found to have received secret commissions from major sponsors. One manager confessed at the time that "all hell would break loose" if he questioned the megastar. Another conceded he should have been "less trusting, more vigilant and more vigorous".

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Perhaps we investigative journalists should be a touch more grateful to those editors and lawyers who painstakingly pick through our work. When it comes to checking and validating content, investigative broadcasters obviously get an easier run.

Although he rarely gives evidence, Jones has had many appearances before the defamation courts. He has taken many hits but generally emerges unfussed and unrepentant. If the vituperation and aggression eases, it tends to be temporary.

Another habit in the face of condemnation is to proclaim virtue in his actions. This time, on air, he affirmed, "If it weren’t for us, there would be no voice".

After the verdict, he lamented, "I do feel that I have somehow let down the people of the Lockyer Valley who sought my assistance".

Jones is bright, but the judgment was never a forte. One former colleague told me, "if he has four people in the room and he picks one, he always picks the worst one. He is very easily influenced by pressure groups. He gets four letters and says it’s a torrent. He goes on air on the flimsiest of evidence".

In the past half century, Jones has overcome a rolling stampede of challenges to his reputation. But inevitably, his audience, his best researchers, forgive him.

As his current managers must be painfully aware, though, it is well past time for him to be less forgiving of the research skills of those devoted listeners.

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