American shock-jock Don Imus has been having a few contractual complications of late. He was caught out on April 4 describing live on air a female basketball team at Rutgers University as “nappy-headed hos”.
Almost immediately, civil rights and anti-racism campaigners began a loud campaign against Imus’ use of phrases that humble Australians like myself had never even heard of. Apparently, all you folk in the “Land of the Free” (including stars of that God-awful genre of music called hip-hop) use the term “nappy” to describe the tightly-curled natural hair texture of many African-Americans.
One anti-Imus protest was led by African-American civil rights leader Rev Al Sharpton outside the NBC offices. Apparently Mr Sharpton used the following righteous words: “None of us has the right to use the public airways in the way that Mr Imus has dome.”
Later, in an interview with Imus, Sharpton expressed the views of many Americans: “You have anchormen from network news, you have senators, you have presidential candidates that come on your show. Are we saying that it is acceptable in the middle of these kinds of candidates and anchorman for you to call my daughter a ho?”
Al Sharpton and former Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Rev Jesse Jackson are leading a national campaign to remove Imus from national radio and TV where his shows have been broadcasting for over 30 years.
Politicians, especially Democrats, are apparently also up in arms. Imus was no small-time talkback host. Already some US politicians have used his program to announce their Presidential nominations. Now they are having second thoughts about appearing there. Democrat Presidential hopeful Barack Obama told the US ABC network: “I have no intention of returning”.
Even John Kerry, who doesn’t think Imus should be sacked, acknowledged Imus said the wrong things and should at least get some kind of punishment.
Major advertisers chose to distance themselves from Imus. Major corporations withdrew millions of dollars in advertising. Names like Procter & Gamble, General Motors Corp and GlaxoSmithCline pulled advertisements from Imus shows.
Imus’ former employer, CBS, has pulled the plug on his programs.
So where could Mr Imus go from here? I have a suggestion. OK, I’ll admit it’s a smaller market. The money isn’t as good. The weather’s a little hotter. We don’t have much of a civil rights movement down here. But governments, regulatory authorities and even many listeners are quite happy to tolerate racism from shock-jocks.
I’m sure some readers will recall the Cronulla race riots of December 2005 that made international headlines. Those riots involved attacks on people of Lebanese and Middle Eastern background, with intoxicated rioters screaming “F#ck the Lebs” and “F*ck the wogs” as they attacked anyone in sight who looked slightly different.
Among those attacked during the riots were two overseas students from Bangladesh who happened to be driving in the area. Their car windscreens and windows were smashed. Another incident involved rioters attacking and assaulting a young man riding a train into Cronulla Station. The man apparently was of part-Afghan descent.
What many outside Australia don’t know is that for a number of days leading upto the riots, sections of the Australian media were drumming up fear, hatred and venom toward non-Anglo Australians who might alternately be described as Lebanese, Middle Eastern or Muslim.
Recently, the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) released an 80 page report into the broadcasts of Sydney shock jock Alan Jones. ACMA was asked to make findings in relation to complaints made for broadcasts of Mr Jones during December 5-9 in 2005. Despite the serious nature of the racial slurs made and their consequences (in making at least some contribution to the Cronulla riots, at least according to a report of the NSW Police), ACMA dismissed most of the complaints against Jones and 2GB.
ACMA did, however, find that Jones did broadcast material “likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity”.
On December 7, Jones read out one listener’s letter on air, saying: “My suggestion is to invite one of the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs. Australians old and new shouldn’t have to put up with this scum.”
One letter Jones read on air stated: “These Middle Eastern people must be treated with a big stick; it’s the only thing they fear, they don’t fear fines and they laugh at the courts.” One of Jones’ colleagues described Lebanese as being “in-bred” and having low IQ’s.
This violation represents the third violation by 2GB shock jocks in relation to vilification in the last 6 months for broadcasts occurring in the past 2 years.
To get an idea of the nature of Jones’ comments, one can read the ACMA report or go to the ABCTV’s Media Watch website.
Now let’s compare Imus’ treatment to that of Alan Jones. Unlike Imus, Jones’ remarks have been commented on by an official law enforcement report and an independent commercial radio watchdog.
While Don Imus was apologetic about his on-air slurs, Alan Jones chose to pass judgment on the commercial radio watchdog. He made a series of deeply offensive personal attacks on air on ACMA chair Chris Chapman, alleging he “had more jobs than I’ve had feeds”. It takes a high level of hubris to do this before ACMA has even issued its punishment.
But then, why should Jones feel threatened? Unlike their American counterparts’ responses to Don Imus, Australian politicians are rushing to Jones’ defence. Labor Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd said there was nothing in the ACMA decision that would cause him to stop appearing on the Jones show.
After praising Alan Jones, Communications Minister Helen Coonan called for commercial radio to suggest changes to the Commercial Radio Code so that it “best reflects community standards”. Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Howard suggested Jones “represents the views of a lot of people on a lot of issues”.
So according to the current government, a broadcasting code should allow broadcasters to incite violence and brutality against certain undesirable ethnic groups as this reflects community standards and is in accord with what a lot of Australians think.
Thus far, no major Australian companies have even threatened to withdraw advertising or sponsorship from Jones’ program or from his radio station.
Don Imus should seriously consider moving to Australia. He may not be free to be racist (at least against African Americans) in the land of the free. But here down under, he can say whatever he likes!
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. He also writes regularly online for NewMatilda.com, Malaysiakini.com and Crikey.com.au.