A public inquiry under way here is giving new meaning to the phrase "money talks."
The Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) has been looking into allegations that a number of this country's top talk-radio hosts took payments from various corporations and interest groups to "plug" their goods and services. Radio host John Laws, for example, is under investigation for allegedly accepting money from the Star City Casino in Sydney, in return for defending the enterprise on air. The deal went sour when the casino says Mr. Laws didn't hold up his end of the deal.
The inquiry, which began last month, is not only illuminating what appears to be quite a lucrative sideline for personalities who are already the highest-paid performers in Australian media. It's also raising the issue of whether a public forum is corrupted when opinions of on-air personalities turn out to be for sale, unbeknown to their listeners or bosses.
Moreover, the "cash for comment" inquiry, as it's known, is demonstrating the gap between elite and mass-market media - and the widening gap between haves and have-nots in a society long noted for its egalitarianism ethos.
Australia isn't, of course, the only country with talk radio, or the only one where the rich and the not-rich rely on different media. "But these guys have enormous influence," says Richard Walsh, editor of Zeitgeist Gazette, an online media monitor.
Mr. Walsh is speaking specifically of Laws and Alan Jones of Sydney station 2UE, both prime targets of the ABA inquiry. Mr. Jones's early-morning time slot gives him an audience of nearly 1 million people - about 5 percent of the entire country's population and about 20 percent of Sydney's.
Talk radio - or "talkback" radio, as it is known here, tellingly - is very much a part of Australia's feisty political culture, where questioning authority is a national pastime. Prime Minister John Howard has pretty much given up "regular" press conferences: He prefers to call into a radio show instead. So do a number of other political figures.
"The elites don't know what's being said on those shows, but they're setting the agenda," says Walsh, who goes on to describe that agenda as "not just conservative, but reactionary."
Some of the culture gap has to do with commuting logistics, he says: Talk radio has a lot of listeners tuned in to Walkmans on commuter trains from Sydney's western suburbs. Later in the morning, the people who have talk radio on in the background are "people in factories, cabdrivers, people working in a sandwich bar," Walsh suggests.
No issue better illustrates the gap between the two communities than the Nov. 6 referendum on switching to a republic. Virtually universally endorsed by broadsheet newspapers, the proposal nonetheless failed, 55 percent to 45 percent. Some radio hosts were part of the "no" campaign, whose scare tactics were widely seen as a factor in the vote.
The "no" vote had less to do with a identification with the monarchy than with concern that launching a republic would be a frivolous indulgence. "How much did this referendum cost?" one caller asked plaintively on air at 2UE. "When they're closing hospitals ..."
Some of the media analysts' concerns about the masses being misled may be misplaced. Geoff Scott, a glass-brick installer who works in Sydney's eastern suburbs, says, "I like John Laws. I work by myself, and instead of listening to music, I like to listen to people talk. I don't learn a lot, that's for sure." But he doesn't think he's being swayed under false pretenses, either. "You'd have to be pretty naive to think he's not being paid for all those raps he gives."
Laws, a 46-year veteran broadcaster, maintains that he has chosen the firms he plugs. But after years of criticizing the banks, as a "defender of the little man," Laws suddenly went silent. The public affairs manager of the Australian Banking Association has testified at the inquiry that his organization paid Laws over $465,000 (Australian; US$300,000) for his silence during the "editorial" part of his broadcasts, in addition to fees for advertising spots.
"This made it all slightly incredible," says Jock Given, director of Sydney's Communications Law Center at the University of New South Wales, with a certain understatement.
Mr. Given - whose center will submit proposals for tougher regulation of broadcasters after the current inquiry concludes - notes that the sanctions the broadcasting authority may impose will be against the station, not the hosts. The real hurt for both Laws and 2UE is the loss of credibility with advertisers, who have been canceling contracts right and left. In addition, observers suggest that Laws's departure from 2UE is likely.
The inquiry has already claimed one high-profile victim: the chairman of the panel of inquiry itself. David Flint, also in the public eye as a leading member of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, had been attacked in his ACM role by an opponent. Looking for a venue in which to clear his name, Professor Flint, in one of the most bizarre subplots of the inquiry, decided to go onto Laws's program - the very show he was investigating. Flint was finally persuaded to step down as head of the inquiry.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society