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Critics' Corner
17 November, 2006  

The complex legaling behind the publication of Jonestown. Plenty of lawyers, plenty of opinions – but in the end Chris Masters’ work was deemed defensible. Worm reviews the book

ABC journalist and Jonestown author Chris Masters (snap) was gonged with the Voltaire Award on Tuesday night (Nov 14) at a gala function in Melbourne hosted by Free Speech Victoria.

Quite apart from his stellar career as a Four Corners reporter the Jonestown book on its own is worthy of as many hosannas as Masters can endure.

I always believed Alan “Dunny” Jones was an appalling little self-booster and ranter with a veneer of charitable largess to lull softheaded types into believing that he was a half-decent human being.

What is quite unusual about Jonestown is that it has been published without so much as a squeak from the subject matter.

After all, his solicitor Mark O’Brien put a threatening letter earlier this year across the bow of the ABC in case it dared to press ahead with the project. Masters in the book quotes an ABC lawyer describing O’Brien’s letter as “puerile”.

Even so, a hopeless ABC board and a wet-smack management dropped the bundle, which was picked-up by Allen & Unwin.

Jones would normally sue at the faintest whiff of his delicate character being besmirched. The David Leser article, in Good Weekend, published in 1998, “Who’s afraid of Alan Jones?” is the subject of a defamation action by “Dunny” and it was a far less probing piece than Jonestown’s careful and comprehensive exposure.

Among other things, Masters has described Jones to be a hypocrite, a con man, a cheat, a deceiver, amoral and, of course, a homosexual.

The advice Jones has been getting is – be out of the country when the book is launched and when you get back don’t read or say anything about it. Ignore the whole thing and it will blow away. Which is probably true. It worked, after all, with the dunny event in London.

Much of the criticism about Jonestown has concentrated on the “prurient” way in which Masters outed Jones for his homosexuality. The predictable claqueurs were to the fore with complaints: Devine M, Pearson C, Akerman P, Bolt A, Sheehan P, and Flint D.

A veritable chorus line of banshees. Journalist David Marr is critiquing the quality of the critiques in a forthcoming issue of The Monthly.

Actually, one of the rare appealing qualities of Alan Jones is that he is a bit of a girl. The “outing” would hardly be new to any half-awake person. The point Masters is making, and I think it is a legitimate one, is that Jones has spent his life pretending he is not gay and it is this that has contributed to the formation of his character.

It is the pretence that is at the heart of his self-loathing, his bullying, the playing of favourites, and his distemper. It helps explains his virulent attacks on those who displease him, his lack of balance and, as Clive Hamilton from the Australia Institute puts it, his beating-up of minorities.

After all, little Alan is part of a minority himself, yet he has this blokey pretence with the Packers and the horseracing crowd and anyone else he believes might think poorly of him for being gay.

The psychology about all this is well-known. It is the same reason David Yeldham was handing down harsh sentences to males who misbehaved in public places or with minors.

Not that Jones is accused in the book of sexual misbehaviour. That is not the point. It’s the perversion in the way he exercised his power, brought about by the denial, that’s the real point Masters seeks to make.

Then again, it’s quite possible to be able to sprout racist remarks and bully people without being a gay denier.

What is evident from the book is that Jones is a fabulist. He has let people think he has an Oxford degree (he doesn’t). He floats the idea that he is personally close to Benazir Bhutto (he isn’t). He says his on-air opinions weren’t influenced by secret payments of money (then why take the money?)

The cash for comment stuff is breathtaking in its audacity. As Julian Burnside put it during the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s investigation of this corruption:

“The curious thing Mr Jones is this: you seem to be saying that what you have done you weren’t obliged to do, and that what you were obliged to do you didn’t do.”

Jones’ preposterous position was that he had not fully comprehended the requirements of his contracts with the various corporations who were shovelling money into his trousers to spruik their causes and that even if he wasn’t being paid, his opinions would still be the same. It was just a case of synchronicity.

The first part is unbelievable because he’s such a stickler for knowing what’s what and the second part ignores the incentive the money gave him to hammer home his in-tune “opinions” more forcefully and repetitively than if he didn’t have the money.

The Walsh Bay case was one of the most awful instances. The Mirvac/Transfield development consortium agreed to pay Jones $200,000 a year to harass the government into accepting that some of the heritage shore sheds and finger wharfs should be knocked over to make the development more profitable. Jones spruiked the developers’ project as “absolutely phenomenal”:

“This is an unbelievable development project. Now let’s say that if it doesn’t go ahead all those piers at Walsh Bay will just collapse into the harbour. What do you do then? Throw a tarpaulin over them, and put a sign on that says ‘too ugly to do anything about and too frightened to try’.”

And to the ABA:

“There is not one single word [in the contracts] which suggests that I, or anybody else, if paid the money would give the comment that they wanted.”

It was nonsense. Not even the ABA could swallow it and found a link between the money and his words. On 31 occasions he’d misled his audience by failing to disclose the payola and on nine other occasions he broadcast advertisements as news.

A half-decent country sould have laws that sent the bumptious pratt to jail for such corruption.

Masters ends the book by telling something of the legal process involved in getting it to print. Let’s hope Jonestown is a testament to the new uniform defamation law, with the truth alone defence applying across the wide brown land.

In April 2004 Masters went with lawyers from the ABC to the chambers of leading defamation barrister Tom Blackburn. The author thought the discussion about his first draft seemed positive, but was later to learn that all was not well. A stockbroker friend later told Masters that an ABC executive had told him the book was unpublishable.

The messages were mixed. Masters was hearing soothing noises while at the same time he sensed management was trying to nobble the book.

To address the problems for his second draft he sought to see the legal report. He was only permitted to do this in the office of the ABC’s general counsel Stephen Collins, in the presence of a witness. The report could not be removed.

What Masters read was quite different from what he had earlier been told about the legal position. It became clear to him that the first draft faced big legal problems.

Some senior ABC management types said that Masters had to “prove” Jones was gay. A sworn statement from a lad was obtained, but immediately problems of Marsdenesque proportions loomed.

The second draft was finished by mid-2005 and by the end of that year ABC lawyers Michael Martin and Ross Duncan had completed a line-by-line legaling.

The book looked solid. It went to Terry Tobin, long-time ABC barrister, who at first was diffident but ultimately became a supporter. By then the legal landscape had changed with the new uniform Defamation Act taking effect from January 1.

All that was required were some witness statements, and that’s when trouble struck. One of the witness statements ended up in the hands of Mark O’Brien (snap), who sent another letter to the head of ABC Books. O’Brien accused Masters of acting selectively and that serious legal consequences were likely to flow.

The letter was referred “upstairs” and soon after the ABC board took an interest in Jonestown. By the middle of this year the advice to the board was that the book was defensible, but even so the ABC washed its hands of it following discussion at the June 29 meeting of directors.

As Masters put it:

“The ABC had caved in to a threat from Alan Jones – not a great moment in the history of the national broadcaster.”

After Allen & Unwin’s successful pitch the manuscript when to Richard Potter of the Sydney bar who, when he was a partner at Philips Fox, had been John Marsden’s solicitor during the dreadful defamation trial with Channel Seven.

Potter also thought the work was defensible.

The last word goes to Masters who told Tuesday’s dinner in honour of his Voltaire Award:

“As far as reaction goes I’m a bit startled. The message delivered by many of the critics of the book seems to be that I was wrong to fail to be intimidated and I now should stand in fear of retribution. Sydney/Jonestown can be a ruthless place. We are somehow expected to land the killer blow. It is what Jones does. It is not what I do. This book was never meant to do a Jones on Jones but to get people talking and asking questions about his extraordinary power base.”

Jonestown – The Power and the Myth of Alan Jones by Chris Masters, published by Allen & Unwin, $49.95



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