By Mike Welsh
I hooked up with the peerless John Laws to discuss the enemies of the past, his hopes for the future, and the world beyond that. If you think the great man has mellowed with age, think again.
The great man sounded grumpy when we spoke just after midday. Understandably so, as Richard John Sinclair Laws CBE OBE had just finished another demanding three-hour on-air talkback radio shift.
The phone call was to discuss his new book LAWSIE: Well…you wanted to know (New Holland) one which, astonishingly, Laws claims to have not yet read. The book chronicles a series of in-depth interviews with the publisher and the man himself, over a twelve month period.
Fans of Laws will quickly spot the lack of anything bowel-shatteringly new in the book, as it’s nigh on impossible for there to be anything novel about the ‘King Of Radio’. Everything about both this shy man’s very public and private existences has been minutely examined, forensically probed and widely published. His unique style has been aped by scores of wannabes over the past six decades, and yet, approaching his 82nd birthday, he still broadcasts on a daily basis. Quite an achievement, I suggest. Laws disagrees: “ I don’t think it’s an achievement, it was nothing I’d planned, it just happened. It’s simply a matter of survival.”
The man whom former Prime Minister Paul Keating once described as the “World’s Greatest Broadcaster” applies an odd caveat to his role in the publication, stating that “This is not a book that I actually wrote, but it is my words. Somebody asked me a bunch of questions, and I answered a bunch of questions”. Laws is pleased with the overall presentation of the book, but dislikes the 60s era black and white photo on the back cover “I don’t ever remember looking like that.”
A testament to Laws’ unique relationship with (and vast influence over) mainstream Australia, is the consistent and long procession of grovelling politicians seeking direct access to the broad audience that only he can deliver. Laws describes Paul Keating as “a really good bloke with a terrific sense of humour and although I’ve not seen him for a while, I still regard him as a friend”. As for the current Lodge dweller, Laws points out that the Malcolm Turnbull we are seeing at the moment “Is the Malcolm Turnbull who wants to stay in power, but I believe he will change as he grows into the role of Prime Minister. He’s a very bright man.”
So, has John Laws mellowed down the years? “No, some people say I have but I’m just as angry as I ever was. I don’t have any trouble being angry. I’m not angry all the time, I have soft moments.”
Laws steps away from that when I broach the topic of one of his favourite radio stations, 2UE. Is the current lowly status of 2UE symptomatic of talkback radio now, I wondered? Laws booms in response: “2UE is a tragedy…used to be a great broadcasting station. It’s been allowed to unwind. I think it’s a disgrace what’s happened to 2UE, somebody should stop and have a close look at it”. In the book, Laws is more succinct in his assessment of the radio station that was at or near the top for decades: “2UE is fucked.”
Laws surprisingly speaks fondly of his former 2UE colleague (and sometimes adversary) Alan Jones, describing him as a competent broadcaster, and sympathises with his current poor state of health.
The Malcolm Turnbull we are seeing at the moment “Is the Malcolm Turnbull who wants to stay in power, but I believe he will change as he grows into the role of Prime Minister. He’s a very bright man.
In the book, Laws tells of a lunch organised by radio king-maker John Brennan (who once said that Laws “had a voice that would curl a frangipani”) at which both Laws and Jones “laughed their heads off”. Laws says “Alan is great company.”
Given the ferocity of their long running feud, I ask if there is a chance of a similar breaking of bread with his onetime under study 2GB’s Ray Hadley?
Laws responds curtly: “No, I only have lunch with people I like…Ray has been bitter for a very long time, as I’ve often said, Ray Hadley always wants to be John Laws. But he can’t be, because I am.”
I attempt to dig deeper into the soul of the man, suggesting that there is a more spiritual Laws on display in the book. He feels there is a difference between believing in God and attending church: “All the Popes, Bishops, Cardinals and Deacons with their fancy garb mean little to me. There were no costly clothes or self-glorification for Jesus, and that says a lot about him.” That being said, Laws is unsure if there is an after-life, deferring to Kerry Packer’s famous quip after he ventured too close to the other side: ”There’s nothing there.”
On the topic of death, I queried him about a reporter’s recent insensitive question on the appeal of dying on the air. Laws offers a laugh, and quotes Woody Allen in response: “I’m not afraid of death I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
If it comes to it, who would play John Laws in the movie?
“I don’t think I could play a good Clint Eastwood, but I think Clint Eastwood might be able to play a good John Laws”.