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The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"What has become known as the 'Cash for Comment' scandal started at 2UE"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 17:13 GMT
Talkback 'cash for comment' scandal

Microphones
Top radio hosts took money for positive comments


By Dominic Hughes in Sydney

A series of revelations, involving secret multimillion dollar deals by well-known corporations to buy influence, has been fascinating Australians in recent months.

But this time it is not politicians who have been caught with their hands in the till.

Instead, two of Australia's most popular radio personalities have been at the centre of what has become known as the "Cash for Comment" scandal.

Changed tune

It is a particularly Australian vice that is likely to claim more victims in the coming weeks.


We were able to reveal a deal between the bankers association and John Laws in the order of nearly a million dollars
Anne Connolly
Talk radio, where outspoken presenters offer their controversial opinions, is hugely popular in Australia.

John Laws of Sydney's Radio 2UE is one of its biggest stars - his mid-morning show is broadcast across the country.

The scandal started at 2UE, although it is unlikely to end there.

The deals to secure positive coverage from the influential radio presenters would have remained secret, had it not been for a sharp-eyed researcher on a television programme.

Media Watch is a wry weekly look at who is doing what in radio, television and the newspapers.

The programme's associate producer, Anne Connolly, said she had been tracking an unexpected change of heart by Mr Laws.

Car radio Mr Laws espouses his views to the nation
"He represents battlers in Australia and he's got a mainly working class audience. So he's got fairly conservative leanings, and he was always a renowned basher of the banks.

"Suddenly, John Laws changed his tune and began to support banks."

On one programme, Mr Laws told his listeners of the "millions given to charity, to sports and the arts", and suggested that banks were not unreasonable about the profits they reaped from customer fees.

Ms Connolly said: "It was a complete back flip to what he had done previously.

"We were able to reveal a deal between the Australian Bankers Association and John Laws in the order of nearly a million dollars, for positive editorial comment."

Ads, not editorial

An inquiry by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) revealed a whole range of deals between major corporations and Mr Laws.


What was going on was advertising dressed up as genuine opinion
Julie Eisenberg
He was not alone. His fellow 2UE presenter Alan Jones, listened to by nearly one in every four Sydney households, also had a raft of undisclosed deals.

It was this failure to disclose that was the greatest source of concern to Julie Eisenberg, a media lawyer with the Communications Law Centre.

On commercial radio, people expected to hear advertisements, she said

"But they also expect to know that what they're hearing is advertising, and what was going on was, in effect, advertising dressed up as genuine opinions.

"It's really fundamental, if you're going to have a public medium and you're going to have a public debate, that people at least know where there are conflicts of interest. It gives them the ability to be sceptical about what they hear."

Both Mr Laws and Mr Jones claimed that everyone knew their shows were sponsored and that their opinions could not be bought, a defence rejected by the ABA inquiry.

Australian vice

With another three talk radio stations now being investigated, the expectation is that there are more revelations to come.


Australia has a long way to go before it grasps how shabby and unique this behaviour has been
David Marr
David Marr, a journalist who has followed the story for the Sydney Morning Herald, says the scandal is a uniquely Australian problem.

"Advertisers all over the world want plugs for their goods and services to sound like news, or entertainment, or anything other than advertisements.

"In Australia, there's just historically been an extraordinarily lax view of the muddling up of news and entertainment and hard sell.

"And although there are broadcasting codes of practice here, they have never been formally enforced, never."

Disclosure

The panel that looked at 2UE proposed full disclosure of any sponsorship deals - but not an end to the deals themselves.

"It should be disclosed, so that the public knows and can make their own judgement," David Flint, chairman of the ABA, said.

"I think that is the correct conclusion, because I think the public ought to make up its own mind about these various matters ... on the basis of full and proper information."

Still popular

The scandal has dented the credibility of talk radio - but there is no sign that this lucrative style of broadcasting is on the way out.

Mr Laws and Mr Jones, two of the most highly-paid radio announcers in the world, are still on the air, and almost as popular as ever.

Mr Marr says talk radio's core audience has yet to realise that their favourite presenters have not been entirely straight with them.

"Australia has a long way to go before it really grasps how shabby and unique this kind of behaviour has been."

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See also:
03 Jun 99 |  UK Politics
When cash means controversy

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