I USED TO have a boring job. Not a terrible job, just a boring one. Everyday, I had to get to Central Station by 12.30, walk up Chalmers Street to the Australia Post building and my desk at Media Monitors. I would clock on just before the 1 pm news and spend my time until the 6 pm television news listening to Sydney's radio ratings leader, 2GB, a talkback station that pays the grotesque salaries of some of Sydney's shrillest commentators. My job was to keep an ear on 2GB, sort and edit little summaries of what was said, relay SMS messages to government staffers and answer the occasional phone call. It wasn't the most glamorous or stimulating job, but it paid the bills, allowed me to sleep in and spend the morning working on my music.
2GB's job is talkback radio – irate listeners and irate announcers participate in the great Australian pastime of whingeing, in between snake oil remedies for prostate enlargement, lethargy and impotence. My job was easy and required only a small amount of concentration. The rest of my attention was usually spent trading snare drums on eBay or writing letters.
In 2007 I read William Donaldson's Henry Root Letters. Root was a character – a semi-retired, uncouth, law and order-obsessed ultra-right Tory – who sent ridiculous, offensive hoax letters to politicians and media personalities. When I was bored, I'd write my own Root-inspired correspondences, eventually to 2GB hosts, but initially to Russian bride-phishing scammers. I didn't use my email address to do this, but a hotmail account under the pseudonym ‘Sef Gonzales'.
You might consider an alias borrowed from a triple murderer bad taste, and you're right. But the terribly worded responses and marriage proposals from lonely Russian girls seemed even weirder when addressed to a man in jail serving three consecutive life sentences.
My shift began at the same time as Chris Smith's program. A co-worker once said that following 2GB's commentary was frustrating, but a good way to keep alert: ‘It's like buying speed off the street. It'll keep you awake, but you'll feel filthy afterwards.'
Smith's stock in trade is broadcasting canned outrage based on the canned outrage in the morning's Daily Telegraph – Sydney's tabloid. He despises the ABC, Fairfax press, academics and artists. His listeners are of a similar mindset. Callers like Dorothy are often broadcast. My notes from May 26, 2008 record: ‘Caller Dorothy says that the photographs by Bill Henson, Australian photographer, are ‘disgusting'. Dorothy says that the art works should be burned in Nuremburg-style rallies in a ‘big bonfire'. Dorothy says that ‘all these paintings and artworks, Barry Humphries, you know ... Ken Done, all those people, get all their rubbish, put it on one big thing and burn the whole lot of it.'
I had been working as a media monitor since 2006, and learnt to take opinions like these with a grain of salt. But the intense, mob-like behaviour of Smith and his listeners generated over the Bill Henson exhibition at RoslynOxley9 gallery was unlike anything I'd heard before.
I had read Miranda Devine's Sydney Morning Herald column about Henson's work while on the train to work that day, but didn't think much about it. Devine's opinion that children are prematurely sexualised is well-known – she had already written six columns about it that year. I did not anticipate it would provoke outrage and fill my afternoon.
In the first hour of Smith's program there was no mention of Henson. He read a listener's email at 1.57 pm which questioned the artistic value of Henson's now infamous pictures. Smith claimed he'd never seen anything more disgusting. The topic for the afternoon was set. Smith complained how sickening the pictures were, and suggested that listeners call the gallery and voice their disgust. Smith said he considered interviewing Roslyn Oxley, but changed his mind and contacted the authorities instead. The next day he repeated he wasn't interested in hearing any justification of the pictures from the gallery, he only wanted to hear how disgusting they were.
Smith's outrage was followed by listeners' threats of retribution. Tony Oxley, the gallery co-owner, told journalists that callers threatened to torch the building. Police raided it the next day and seized more than twenty pictures. The fury raged for a month, until the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to lay any charges, and the Classification Board found there was no reason to censor Henson's work.
I WAS LEFT scratching my head over the whole thing. There was a lot else in the news in late May, but Smith devoted three hours to an art exhibition he didn't like and inciting his 46,000-59,000 listeners. His fixation with what he decried as appalling images of naked children was at odds with images on his website of pictures of his own children – in the nude.
On July 6, 2008, News Limited Sunday papers eagerly revived the debate and attacked Art Monthly for a cover that featured a picture of six-year-old Olympia Nelson. The outrage was predictable, the Prime Minister again affirmed his disgust, and the then-Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, described the magazine's choice of image as a ‘two-fingered salute' to decent Australians. I knew that Chris Smith would milk the renewed outrage for all it was worth.
As is probably obvious, after listening to Smith day after day, I had developed a strong personal dislike of him. I was paid to listen to him and in my view he was poorly informed and dim-witted. Friends and I used to joke about Smith's constant pleas when discussing politics ‘to stick to the policy debate', although he was more comfortable criticising Julia Gillard's voice, or Thérèse Rein's wardrobe.
Before I left for work on July 7, I emailed from my Sef Gonzales account, anticipating Smith's tirade against ‘arty farty' types and obscene pictures: ‘I have a feeling the subject of child porn is coming up on your program. I am sickened when this sort of thing is passed off as "harmless" or "art". I want you to know I find it, in all its forms, absolutely appalling as well – like any other decent person. I just thought I'd draw your attention to some disgusting, freely available pictures of children bathing (with no clothes on, of course. Appalling ...). I hope you can get in contact with the web host and maybe make an example of this awful tripe on your program. I am referring, sir, to the photos numbered 16 to 17. Here is the link to them ...'
Smith was outraged and said on air: ‘And I gotta say anyone who defines shots of my kids in that way, and that is the distinction, and there are great differences in what we're discussing occurred in that magazine and what I have in my personal website. Well anyone who wants to define shots of my kids that way, Sef, well I tell you what, you deserve a good smack in the mouth.' [Cue talkback radio sting.]
Smith read an email of support and aired a call from Nathan, who said he worked in corrective services with paedophiles: ‘The story is now going around that some of these guys have actually started talk that when they get out – and there's a couple getting out in a couple of months – that they will become artists, which will allow them to [sic] This is a problem ... And that guy that had a go at you about your children, I'd be doing the same as you. I'd like to smack him in the mouth.'
Smith: ‘Yeah, good on you Nathan. Thank you. Three of us lined up.'
Some of my colleagues and I thought it was hilarious that Smith threatened ‘Sef Gonzales', and encouraged listeners to do the same. Getting Smith so angry gave me an incentive to write to him whenever he said something incorrect or hypocritical. After a few emails and no response, I offered to write his biography:
I am writing to inform you that I have been commissioned to write your unauthorised biography. It seems that after the success Allen & Unwin had with Jonestown, MUP have decided they want to publish a few unauthorised, warts and all accounts of the lives of various ‘shock jocks' (I've always found the term unfair and unreasonable, hence my use of what journalists call sneer quotes). My brief was to come up with several tens of thousands of words on a radio announcer like Jones, except one who people don't care about.
This produced the desired response: anger and insults. I wrote back and asked whether I could photograph him for the ‘biography'. He offered to punch me in the mouth. Smith's threats were forwarded to friends, who shared my amusement.
Smith must have tired of being lampooned, my email address was blocked from 2GB's website, but undeterred, I wrote again:
I'm just writing to ask if you could speak at my birthday party ... I'd like to use your speaking talents to work up my crowd. It's a pool party. I don't have a pool, either, so I was wondering if I could have it at your place (providing that you have a pool and there is adequate parking in the street). I will give the gig of MC to you, as long as you promise to promote my biography of you, at least in passing.
Smith later said that he contacted the police and two private investigators after he received this email. A colleague, Serkan Ozturk, and I continued to write spoof emails to him, not knowing that they were being read by police. Eventually the police came to Media Monitors and questioned us. Finding nothing but a couple of goofballs writing annoying messages to a man they didn't like (on company time – probably the greatest crime), no charges were laid. Smith meanwhile told his listeners he had taken the matter to the Police Commissioner.
For our sins, Serkan and I were fired (although Serkan has since settled with Media Monitors) and repeatedly libelled on Smith's program. The outraged mob has moved on to other topics. The naked pictures of Chris Smith's children have been taken off his website, but Sef Gonzales is still on 2GB's mailing list. At the time of writing, I don't have a job – boring or otherwise – but my music is benefiting from the extra time to practice.