John Laws famously describes himself as an entertainer and a salesman rather than a journalist. The distinction matters for a shock-jock, since it entirely decouples power from responsibility. You can still take the high moral ground but if there’s ever any consequences … hey, I’m just a guy who sells Valvoline.

It’s supposed to be different for politicians.

The traditional bipartisanship on capital punishment represented an oasis of principle in the arid wasteland of Australian politics. Responsible politicians opposed the noose not because that opposition was popular (it wasn’t) but because it was right.

Not so long ago, Kevin Rudd, still on his Dietrich Bonhoeffer kick, even spoke out against the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Now, though, the shock jocks rule.

“They deserve the justice that will be delivered to them,” explains the PM about the Bali bombers.

“They are murderers, they are mass murderers and they are also cowards.”

This was no gaffe, no slip of the tongue, but a rearticulation of the slapping Rudd gave Robert McClelland when the then Foreign Affairs spokesman stated Labor’s official policy.

It’s pure tabloid posturing, a recognition that the immediate audience obtainable by shouting ‘Hang them high!’ after a heinous crime outweighs Dietrich’s namby-pamby concerns about “the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled“.

The same logic governs the latest Bill Henson beat-up. An internationally known artist visits a school, with the full knowledge, and in the presence of, the staff. He subsequently asks parents if their kids would have photos taken. Some agree; some decline. Big deal.

Yet we now have an inquiry underway — and Youth Minister Kate Ellis seems to have taken complete leave of her senses.

“Let’s let kids be kids,” she says.

“When was it decided that we wanted to step on in and snatch away that innocence before it happens naturally.”

What does that even mean? Does Ellis know? Does anyone?

If the concern were really about safety and s-xual abuse, Ellis and Rudd and Brumby and the rest of them would point out that, contrary to the tabloid script, most abuse actually takes place in ordinary suburban homes. Weird-bearded artists are not threatening to use your kids school as their s-xual smorgasbord.

But there’s no headlines in that.

The consequences flowing from Rudd’s statements on Amrozi are entirely predictable.

Leave aside the ethics of the death penalty. Ignore the long-time consequences of cheering on executions in a state like Indonesia, with its appalling human rights records. Let’s simply ask what happens when the next Schapelle Corby gets done for drugs in Singapore or Vietnam. The PM has called the death penalty “justice” because, you see, it’s “consistent with the Indonesian judicial system.” And that’s exactly the argument we’ll hear back when the next miserable heroin mule mounts the gallows in Changi gaol.

If that prisoner’s sufficiently young and pretty, the shock jocks will, without any embarrassment whatsoever, throw themselves into the campaign for clemency. What will Rudd say then: “Valvoline, you know what I mean”?

Peter Fray

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