You may find it hard to believe that a man who has admitted to forgery, groping female colleagues and exposing his genitals in a boardroom meeting has kept his job as a morals-crusading radio star. You may find it harder still to believe that he is one of the most effective mobilisers of mass opinion in the country.
But it’s true.
Chris Smith’s afternoon show — broadcast to 400,000 listeners each week on 2GB in Sydney and MTR in Melbourne — is shock jockery on steroids. And it’s working a treat.
Smith has upped the ante on Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones by not only railing against Julia Gillard’s carbon tax but co-ordinating rallies to oppose it. It was he who decided the time, date and place for the controversial “No Carbon Tax” rally held outside Parliament House in March 2011. Three thousand people — some waving s-xist signs such as “Juliar: Bob Browns [sic] bitch — showed up. Not a huge crowd, but many of the protesters had never before participated in a rally.
And remember the hoo-ha over the Gillard government’s decision to pay for flights and accommodation so that the relatives of victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy could attend their funerals in Sydney? Smith not only bewailed this “waste” of taxpayer dollars, he used the tragedy as the subject for an on-air promotional giveaway. Listeners were offered a book, DVD or movie tickets if they could correctly guess the number of asylum seekers being buried. The stunt sickened many, including Andrew Bolt — a fierce critic of the government’s refugee policies and a regular guest on Smith’s show.
But Smith rejects the accusation (levelled at him by critics including former talkback host Mike Carlton) that he and his fellow shock jocks are right-wing “hate mongers” who degrade political debate by promoting fear, bigotry and racism.
“Yes I have strong opinions,” Smith tells The Power Index, “but no stronger than any of my listeners. We tap into certain issues because they’re what our listeners care about. Our influence is well overstated.
“Every single day for the past three months I have been inundated with calls about the carbon tax. There are days I say, ‘I’m sick to death of this’ and would like to move on to other topics but I can’t.”
That’s not to say his anti-carbon tax crusade isn’t a highly personal one, although he’s adamant he’s no climate-change sceptic.
“The main issue is that we haven’t taken the biggest economic transformation in a generation to an election — that’s the big beef for me.”
But is it appropriate for him to be spruiking protest rallies? “I’ve done nothing except support the right of people to protest,” he says. “I think it’s part of our role to do that.”
Smith, who grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, is proud to admit that he’s always been a loudmouth: “My dad always said I should have passionate opinions about things. I’m always debating with neighbours over the fence or at dinner parties. What I do on air is what I’m like off air.”
Unlike his stablemates Hadley and Jones, he’s a trained journo. Smith started in regional radio before rising through the ranks at Channel Nine to become a star reporter on A Current Affair. His willingness to push the boundaries helped him score many scoops, but he went too far in 1994 when he forged a signature by Nine’s corporate lawyer to get a prisoner released from jail for an interview. He was charged by police, pleaded guilty and was given a two-year good-behaviour bond.