This is what happens when society pushes back.


Alan Jones is sick of you bullying him. Please stop.

Wait, what? I listened to Alan Jones‘ show yesterday morning after reading that the station which employs him, 2GB, has taken the unprecedented step of pulling all advertising (what’s left of it) from his program.

My ears nearly fell off but I was curious to see how it would go down. A commercial show without commercials. There was lots of coverage of his charity work and many people ringing in to tell him how much they loved him and rail against the ‘ratbags’ who are uptight about ‘that little thing you said which you apologised for straight away’.

In between, Alan was full of bluff and bluster. He also corrected a listener who called him a ‘legend’, insisting “No, just a battler”. ( I’ll ignore that because it defies comprehension.)

According to Fairfax:

Alan Jones. Victim.

Jones opened his show at 5.30am saying Australians had the right to boycott his show, but they did not have the right to decide where companies can advertise.

“They do not have the right to interfere with that freedom of choice, or should not… and they don’t have the right, or should not, have the right to attempt cyberbullying of people who listen to this program or advertise on it.”

Jones said his comments about the Prime Minister had not been civilised, but he had apologised for what he said. “These false petitions are anything but civilised. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

“This is, as I said, a forensic campaign based on petitioning businesses. Virtually jamming up emails, jamming up switchboards, trying any threatening tactic they can to make businesses cease to be associated with this program.”

Alan’s rolling outrage in the past few days has been palpable and authentic. He is genuinely wounded. Baffled by this turn of events.

It often goes this way when tables are turned and someone with immense power sees what it’s like to feel the intense heat of a public backlash.

A while back I wrote about this phenomenon.

About how sometimes, when you push boundaries, they push back. And if you’ve built your career on boundary-pushing, an unexpected push-back can knock you flat on your arse.

Just ask Kyle Sandilands.  Gordan Ramsay. Matty Johns. Bill Henson. You’d struggle to think of a more disparate group but they’ve all been knocked on their bums at some stage after inadvertently poking a sharp stick through their own bubble and into the eye of mainstream public opinion.

In each case, the backlash has been overwhelming and merry hell has rained down on their heads. In each case, their shock has appeared genuine. And why wouldn’t it be?

Shocked: Gordon Ramsay

I don’t understand, Gordan Ramsay probably said after he was slammed for insulting Tracey Grimshaw. I’ve always been an abusive, sexist loud-mouth.

I don’t understand, Bill Henson probably said. I’ve always photographed naked children.

I don’t understand,  Matty Johns probably said. Footy players have always had group sex. 

I don’t understand, Kyle Sandilands probably said. I’ve always channeled Jerry Springer and Howard Stern.

It’s what we DO, they probably cried. And until now, people clapped and cheered and never told us to stop.

You can almost see why they were so perplexed.

And so it is with Alan Jones who is probably shaking his head and saying,But I’ve always excoriated Julia Gilard and other public figures (often women) in the most vile, vicious and obsessive way.’

SHOCKED: Matty Johns

In the face of such extreme public anger and media castigation, some boundary pushers have understood faster than others that they’ve gone too far. Some remorse has been heartfelt and sincere while other apologies have been cynical and made at gunpoint, motivated by spin-doctors and a mercenary desire to secure future earnings. Hello Alan Jones.

Behind the scenes, I’d guess many remain quietly defiant, seething that they’re suddenly being held accountable for things they’ve done freely for years.

Alan’s defiance isn’t quiet. He’s openly calling those who object to his modus operandi, ‘bullies’. Which means by definition, he must be the victim. Really.

Success is a potent filter. Even if you don’t ask it to, it can quarantine you from criticism and perspective. You become insulated in your world. Money comes easily. So do opportunities. People say yes to you a lot.

This doesn’t make you a bad person, just one who can become dangerously out of touch with what the majority of society finds acceptable. So when your insulated world collides with the world most other people live in, things can become really ugly really quickly.

I know this because I’ve been there – on a vastly smaller scale, thankfully. Several times during my years as a magazine editor, I was sent reeling from a public backlash I’d inadvertently triggered, usually by doing something I’d done many times before.

Two of the biggest pushbacks I experienced were for things I’d considered so humdrum as to not even raise an eyebrow in my mind let alone a red flag.

The first time was when I used Photoshop to change the colour of a cover model’s dress. I’d done things far worse without consequence. But on this occasion, a rival magazine released the original image to draw attention to the change and when it ignited a story on a slow news day, I was inundated with furious feedback from readers. This baffled me. It was just a dress, wasn’t it? I hadn’t changed her skin colour or body shape. Why the fuss?

Eventually I got the message. It turns out readers don’t like being deceived, not even in seemingly innocuous ways. It makes them wonder how else you’re deceiving them. Having inhabited The Land Of The Altered Image for so long, my view on such things had been radically recalibrated without me even realising it.

The second big boundary pushback was oral sex’s fault. If you’re even vaguely familiar with Cosmo or Cleo, you’ll be aware that sex in all its flavours is as ubiquitous in those mags as beauty tips and relationship advice. It’s been that way for decades.

And editing such a magazine, when your job requires you to conduct regular sealed-section meetings with your staff…well, your views on how acceptable it is to discuss sex can become a little warped.

The oral sex cover of Cosmo

That’s how I came to be the public face of smut after customer complaints about an overly raunchy coverline prompted several supermarkets to yank Cosmo from sale. I then had to front the media to defend my magazine while pretending to be sorry. Privately, I was once again baffled. One part of me (the mother part who stood in supermarket queues with a small child) understood the outrage but I was still confused.

I’d worked on magazines that had run more explicit stories. Hey, I’d run far worse myself dozens of times. This one was standard stuff and it was sealed so what was the problem? Once again it took me a while to realise I’d been caught napping. While I was sequestered in mag land where life is a rainbow of weird, public standards of decency had shifted underneath me. To the right. What was fine a decade ago, suddenly wasn’t. I’d pushed a boundary to sell magazines and the boundary had replied in no uncertain terms, “Oi! Back off bitch!” And so I did.

And that’s the point. If you want to be paid to push boundaries – like Alan Jones has been for decades –  you’d better listen when they push you back.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, do I believe Alan Jones should be sacked? No. But I do believe this incident (simply the latest in an established pattern of behaviour over years, even decades of his career) should serve as a recalibration for Alan Jones. Society is pushing back. Society is saying, we’re not prepared to accept this level of rudeness and personal viciousness in public debate. Society is saying, put your manners back in. Say what you want, make your point, but do it politely.