The Sydney Morning Herald

By Nicole Hemmer

In his rambling apologia on Sunday morning, Alan Jones compared his situation to that of the US Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Both men had been caught making comments to private audiences that, when leaked to the public, triggered widespread outrage. Romney dismissed half the population as parasitic layabouts, while Jones mocked the recent death of Julia Gillard's father. The unexpected release of their comments left Romney and Jones scrambling to explain themselves.

Their shared fate, Jones seemed to imply, was less an indictment of base and politically damaging insults than a warning against assuming private comments will stay that way.

That, perhaps, is not the most useful lesson to draw from this weekend's events. But American politics does provide a fitting cautionary tale for the Jones debacle, one that should serve as a warning for the Liberal Party. Should the party tie itself too closely to rising right-wing media, Liberals risk losing their independence and their political viability.

In late February, American radio talkback host Rush Limbaugh got into a situation that closely parallels the Jones case. It involved slurs against a woman in politics, calls for advertiser boycotts, and a public apology. But it drew a far different response from America's conservative politicians.

On his show, Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, a law student advocating for contraception access during a congressional hearing. Rather than simply take on her arguments, Limbaugh lashed out. He called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute", braying that she was "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk".

Denunciations, swift and unyielding, poured in from all corners - except one. Locked in a tight battle for the Republican presidential nomination, the party's candidates hesitated. Limbaugh, after all, held powerful sway over the base. If they crossed him, it could cost them critical support.

So they demurred. Cowed, a group of men running to lead the country could do little more than mumble mealy-mouthed equivocations.

"It's not the language I would have used," Romney offered, the verbal equivalent of a shrug. Rick Santorum chalked it up to a boys-will-be-boys incident, noting "an entertainer can be absurd". And one-time frontrunner Newt Gingrich passed on criticising Limbaugh to instead rail against President Obama for "opportunistically" reaching out to Fluke.

Such across-the-board cowardice can be better understood if one considers Limbaugh's outsized influence in the Republican Party. In the mid-1990s, after conservatives won a historic number of seats in Congress, the Republicans thanked Limbaugh for his help by naming him an honorary member of their caucus. In 2009, when pollsters asked who led the Republican Party, respondents chose Limbaugh over any politician.

His power in the party means it's far more likely that conservative politicians apologise to him than for him. The former governor Mark Sanford, the congressman Phil Gingrey and the former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele all issued public apologies after making negative comments about Limbaugh.

That tight relationship has real political consequences. Increasingly the Republican Party skews further and further right to appease ideologues in the media. The result? Spectacles like this year's primary race, full of underqualified candidates who satisfied the base but few others.

The Liberals should heed this sad state of affairs in the US's conservative party. Tony Abbott's slow response to the Jones affair must not signal the start of a trend towards obeisance to conservative media, an unwillingness to criticise when propriety demands.

Nor is it enough simply to condemn the comments, then sidle back up to Jones when public interest has moved on. Too close a relationship with Jones, who regularly trades in lashing insults and invective, can hobble politicians even when the talkback host is not engulfed in front-page controversies.

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Certainly Australia's conservatives cannot afford to ignore right-wing media. Commentators like Jones, Andrew Bolt and other conservative commentators shape political debate. As opinion-moulders, they helped turn the Liberal Party (and then the broader public) against the emissions-trading scheme, resulting in Malcolm Turnbull's ouster and Abbott's rise.

Yet while centre-right politicians cannot disregard conservative media figures, they must continue to maintain clear lines between opinion-moulders and policymakers. The former trade in ideological purity, the latter in pragmatic politics. Should those roles blend and blur as they have in the US, Australian politics risks losing the flexibility, and decency, necessary for good governance.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.