1935 - | NSW | Talkback radio presenter
John Laws presented a hugely successful talkback radio program on several Sydney commercial radio networks during a career spanning more than half a century. Laws was the first to show the political potency of the talkback format. The 1983 election was dubbed the “John Laws election” for the number of major campaign announcements politicians made on his show. Paul Keating said: ”Forget the Press Gallery; educate John Laws and you educate Australia.” With a mix of music, show business, gushing live reads of advertisements, politics and talkback, Laws was one of the few commercial radio presenters who could be networked successfully into multiple markets. He was snared in the “cash-for-comment” scandal in the 1990s.
John Laws would insist he’s not a journalist. He calls himself an entertainer. Critics use terms like shock jock, a derivative of disc jockey, used by media snobs to dismiss those working on commercial talk radio. Yet the broadcast journalism of John Laws transformed Australian radio and Australian society.
Former prime ministers cite his role in communicating public policy and fostering debate as central to public support for the reforms of the 1980s and 90s. His interviews with political leaders, federal and state, are part of political folklore. And he shaped the evolution of talkback during the decades when it was the only interactive medium, prior to the arrival of the internet. Listen to radio today and you’ll hear people using tricks and techniques introduced by John Laws decades ago.
His life story is remarkable in itself.
Born Richard John Sinclair Laws in 1935 in Wau, in the then Australian-administered territory of New Guinea, he was evacuated to Australia during World War Two, grew up in Sydney, suffered two bouts of polio and finally, having struggled at school, ended up a jackaroo in Western NSW.
At 17, his golden voice was already being noticed and took him to radio in regional Victoria. It was perfect timing as radio would soon be turned upside down by the arrival of television. Many of the biggest names would shift to the new medium and radio moved away from serials and quizzes and adopted top 40.
John Laws was soon back in Sydney at 2UE and led the wave of young men who would ride the musical train of the late 1950s and 60s as Elvis and then the Beatles emerged.
Laws was in everything. A TV show and musical recordings added to his profile but at the centre of it was radio. Long John Laws (a reference to his height and slim figure ) was already a potent brand when talkback radio began. For the first time listeners could talk live to air (albeit on a few seconds delay) and Laws quickly became the master of the art. And it was, and is, an art.
Talkback at its heart should inform and entertain; people sharing their stories and opinions in an entertaining informative way. John Laws, who never hid his wealth or love of the good life, connected with his audience who felt he was one of them, reflecting their concerns and putting them to those at the top. It was this connection that led politicians to his studio. If they could get on, and connect with him, they could connect with the audience.
Among those who did this best was NSW Premier Neville Wran who would regularly spend an hour or more in conversation, generating reams of stories for the rest of the media. Their relationship was such that when truck drivers blockaded the highway south of Sydney at Razorback mountain, Wran recruited Laws to use his influence with the truckies to broker a solution.
A measure of Laws’ standing came when Channel 10 assembled a high profile group of journalists for its ill-fated answer to the Nine Network’s 60 minutes. They called the show The Reporters and hired John Laws, the non journalist, as program host. But, as always, his forays into TV were the sideshow to radio.
When Australia went to the polls in 1983 it was popularly dubbed “The John Laws Election”.
Bob Hawke made one of his few stumbles in the Laws studio when he played down some of his promises, but it was Malcolm Fraser who produced the story of the campaign, telling Laws that if Labor won, people would be safer keeping their money under the bed. Hawke famously responded that there was no room under the bed. That was where the Reds were!
By 1987, Hawke had declared that John Laws’ listeners are Australia and Paul Keating said: “Forget the Press Gallery; if you educate John Laws you educate Australia.” It was more than hyperbole. Keating had become a regular interviewee and in one of the most extraordinary episodes of either man’s career, Keating took the broadcaster to the Reserve bank building in Sydney where the country’s senior economic boffins gave a briefing on the economy and the ramifications of some of the reforms being pursued by the government.
Despite this, and the close relationships he formed with those in power, Laws has always played down his influence. In his book Lawsie, he says: “I never tried to put myself at the centre of events nor was there any conscious effort on my part to use or abuse the power I supposedly had.”
Yet in that same book is this from Keating: “The most important thing to say about John Laws is he really made and created the medium of talkback radio in Australia.” Keating also praises Laws for his handling of his famous “Banana Republic” warning after Australia’s terms of trade collapsed in 1986, and for responsibly covering the debate over native title.
Laws happily acknowledges his ability to sell. Long before politicians woke up to the potency of his connection with the audience, advertisers realised that an endorsement from John Laws was gold. For a long time brands such as Toyota, Valvoline and Mortein were as well known for their association with John Laws as anything else.
Laws produced rivers of that gold for his radio employers and in a remarkable decade, from 1979 to 1989, made four moves that shook the industry each time. From Sydney’s 2UW he returned to 2UE before being lured by Fairfax to 2GB and then back to the then Alan Bond-owned 2UE - each time transporting his audience with him and taking each station to the top.
Each move involved higher remuneration and by the end of the decade he was one of, if not the highest paid radio host in the world. Through the 1990s his network and influence grew but by the end of the decade he was not only at the centre of events but also was the news - for weeks on end.
His commercial sponsorships were the subject of his biggest controversy, the cash-for-comment inquiry in 1999. He was found to have breached the commercial radio broadcast codes numerous times during his show on 2UE, leading to conditions of disclosure being imposed on him and all those hosting commercial news talk radio programs. The criticism was harsh but Laws was adamant his endorsements were always overt and while the code applied to current affairs programs, his program was entertainment and the code should not have applied.
A far harsher penalty was applied in 2000 when John Laws was found in contempt of court for interviewing a juror about a controversial decision. The rules in NSW allow a talkback host to take an unsolicited call from a juror, who can anonymously describe their deliberations, but not seek them out for that interview, or ask questions. That distinction led to Laws being convicted and given a 15-month suspended jail term.
Laws continues to broadcast his show to a network covering much of Australia. He says he keeps doing it into his 80s because he loves it and he retains the loyalty of his audience and sponsors.
For those who followed him in radio, and particularly those who shared the airwaves with him, his influence on us and on our craft has been immeasurable. Journalist or not, his impact on the way news and particularly politics is covered has been profound.
John Stanley is a Sydney journalist and broadcaster who shared the airwaves at 2UE with John Laws for 20 years. Before that he was Macquarie Radio political correspondent in Canberra when the network’s biggest star, John Laws, was being “educated” by then Treasurer Paul Keating.
Courtesy of Fairfax.
John Laws in 1986, courtesy of Fairfax.
Lawsie – Well, You Wanted to Know, John Laws, New Holland, 2017