When bullies play victim

In a classic case of Goliath imitating David, it's hard to believe Alan Jones's latest tactic in the saga about his offensive comments about the Prime Minister's father.

Crying crocodile tears, Jones today alleged that the thousands of people demanding his advertisers cease supporting him are "cyber-bullies", accusing them of running a campaign of "cyber-terrorism".

"They don't have the right - or should not - to attempt cyber-bullying of people who listen to this program or advertise on it," said Jones this morning. "Businesses have great difficulty doing business while withstanding that stuff... if this is not illegal, it ought to be".

As an activist I've run corporate campaigns demanding better of some of Australia's biggest companies. From Woolworths to Harvey Norman, I've worked with thousands of everyday Australians calling for more ethical corporate behaviour.

Over and over, when corporations realise they're getting a strong dose of customer feedback, I've seen the same two reactions emerge as the standard formulaic response.

First, they belittle the people contacting the company in question, calling them "keyboard activists" as though their opinion somehow counts less because they've sent an email rather than filled out a customer survey form.

2GB's early message to their advertisers followed this well-worn path, telling the companies not to worry. It dismissed the complaints as just coming from people "behind the keyboard". Perhaps it doesn't realise that almost all Australians under the age of 80 can fit into the category of knowing how to type! But people have always used the medium in front of them to make their voices heard. Whether it's Twitter, Facebook, email, letter-writing or calling talkback radio, they're all valid ways to get a message across.

Soon, the target of a corporate campaign begins to realise that the message is starting to bite, regardless of the medium. They then move on to their next tactic: attempting to silence the feedback by claiming they're being bullied.

At the Woolworths' AGM last year, chairman James Strong stood up and labelled as "bullying" a campaign in which 76,000 customers, employees and shareholders had signed a petition calling on the company to make its poker machines more responsible through limiting bets to $1 per spin.

I was dumbfounded. Woolworths is one of Australia's most powerful companies, worth $36.5 billion. They have a section on their website for customer feedback. "We value your feedback," it states. Yet when 76,000 Australians decided to give them feedback about Woolies making millions of dollars by preying on problem gamblers, Woolworths felt bullied?

We've seen the same tactic used by the Australian Food and Grocery Council when they called it "blackmail" after customers demanded they stop issuing misleading information about the carbon price.

Harvey Norman also tried this line of attack when proof emerged that the company was using old-growth forests in their products. Gerry Harvey's voice blaring down the other end of the phone calling me a bully was so loud that my taxi driver thought I was listening to talkback radio through my phone.

These companies are trying to convince the public that they're David and we're Goliath. But the reality is otherwise.

We live in a country that values basic principles like free speech and freedom of political association. As consumers, just as citizens, we have a right to make our voices heard. Whether it's through a customer feedback form, or an email, we have a right to collectively organise. And the fact that over 70 advertisers pulled out of Jones's show (no wonder 2GB "suspended" advertising) is proof that by aggregating our power we can make a real impact.

A competitive marketplace gives us options, and nowadays people look at more than just price when making purchasing decisions. Companies forget this at their peril.

Jones's comments this morning don't just reveal his ignorance about the commercial marketplace. They also show a callousness towards the victims of real cyber-bullying. Only eight weeks after the vicious anonymous online attacks on Charlotte Dawson, Jones is throwing around the phrase "cyber-bullying" as synonymous with online feedback from customers of companies who advertise on 2GB. In doing so he belittles the experiences of people who genuinely bear the brunt of this 21st-century scourge.

Customers emailing advertisers with feedback is not akin to online death threats. And Jones should know the difference. From suggesting the Prime Minister should be put in a chaff bag to attacking climate scientists, Jones is the expert in real bullying.

It's no wonder John Laws said of Mr Jones: "If hypocrisy were an Olympic sport, Jones would have won the gold medal."

Simon Sheikh is the former National Director of advocacy group GetUp!

Alan Jones.

Alan Jones.


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