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Beware how you might speak of the dead

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BRISBANE -- Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's dad died last month, and that melancholy event, in the strange manner of these things, may lead to the professional demise of one of the nation's most powerful radio broadcasters.

Alan Jones may have an equivalent on Canadian radio where powerful political operatives still wield influence on what, in technological terms at least, is an almost ancient medium.

But inevitably the comparison will be flawed because of the unique role Jones plays in a nation he has subtly manipulated for decades with his extraordinary communication skills.

The lifelong bachelor, who coached the beloved Wallabies Rugby Union team to numerous victories, has been a farmer, teacher, actor in musical theatre, speechwriter for a prime minister and in recent decades, the king of Sydney talk-back radio, a forum where political aspirants can be made or broken in around one-tenth the time it takes to butter your morning toast.

The man was born on a modest Queensland dairy farm, studied at Oxford University and has accumulated a sizable fortune, but still presents himself, credibly enough, as a friend of the "Aussie battlers" (rough translation: poor but honest working-class families).

Jones has given large sums to charities and individuals in need, and while often championing the Conservative Liberal Party, now in Opposition to the ruling Labor Party, can swing wildly across the political landscape, occasionally backing causes traditionally associated with the political left.

Only recently, he joined protests against coal-seam gas mining in the country's north. The move was motivated largely by his love of farmers whose ground is being invaded by mining companies, but it also brought him into the warm if slightly awkward embrace of the Australian Greens.

Yet last Saturday night while addressing a gathering of mildly liquored-up young Conservatives, Jones uttered a handful of words many serious commentators believe signal the end of his career.

Jones told his audience of Young Liberals that Gillard's dad, John, widely eulogized around the nation as a good and decent man with an exceptionally loving relationship with his devoted daughter, had died of shame.

"(He) died of shame to think that his daughter told lies every time she stood for parliament,'' Jones said to some gasps, and some laughter, from his appreciative audience.

Tasteless? Certainly. Even outright brutal in its cold cruelty. But at the same time, such a comment could easily have been greeted with nothing more than a few guilty chuckles by conservative-leaning guests (after the fourth bottle of red had been uncorked?) at some swank, inner-city Sydney dinner party.

Unfortunately for Jones, this was not dinner for 10, and not everyone present was in a forgiving mood. In the audience was a newspaper reporter, and the following morning his words were front-page news.

The public reaction could not be described as a storm or a controversy, nor as an affray or even a brouhaha. It was more a phreatic eruption, flinging incandescent fragments of fury across the nation and leaving the often imperious and supremely confident Jones buried deep beneath the red-hot lava of public outrage.

The 20th-century cry "it's all media-driven'' rang hollow as the web outflanked the dead-tree media crowd in leading the charge of mouth-frothing, righteous indignation.

"Alan Jones, you are a repugnant, misogynistic troll" was one of the more restrained tweets. "Thoughtless bastard'' was a less prolix but typical web post.

Jones tried desperately to phone the PM at her two official residences but got no response. He then hastily arranged a Sunday-morning press conference to apologize and, in his labyrinthine manner, offer some defence for his words.

It was all too little, too late. By Tuesday morning, sponsors including Mercedes Benz were abandoning his top-ratings show. His loyal followers did phone in offering unflagging support, while Jones blamed a gang of not clearly identified "enemies" for attempting to destroy him.

But his many adversaries in the ruling Labor Party lined up, concealing their glee with sombre tones and studied frowns, to stare down camera barrels and openly question Jones' viability as a respected broadcaster.

Jones may well survive. Like a tough old cattle dog from his beloved rural Queensland, he's dodged plenty of lethal attacks from angry bulls and gone on happily galloping about his media pastures. But by Wednesday afternoon, it was obvious the PM, who knows full well the power of Jones' morning radio show, was no longer interested in maintaining a cordial relationship with one of Australia's mostly influential media figures.

Gillard has been swamped with messages of support from a public who have until recently kept her at arm's length, with polls showing her right on track for defeat in next year's federal election.

Things may be about to change for the PM.

"I haven't spoken to Mr. Jones,'' she told reporters curtly. "And I don't intend to."


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J11

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