The outrage against Kyle Sandilands’s comment that Magda Szubanski would lose more weight if you put her in a concentration camp is understandable. The 2DayFM shock jock has been stood down by management, some companies have withdrawn advertising and he was widely condemned by politicians, community leaders and such celebrities as Renee Gayer. The criticism has carried more weight on account of his previous bad behaviour.

However, the reaction to his comment widely interpreted as a reference to Nazi Germany’s concentration camps exhibited a double standard. In recent years, in the West particularly, it has become a common to attempt to link public figures with totalitarianism usually fascist/Nazi but sometimes communist. Many on the left, or centre-left, use the word fascist as an adjective to describe people with whom they disagree.

There is some debate about the actual circumstances of Sandilands’s youth in Brisbane. He maintains he was homeless for a time aged about 15. Some of his family deny this; others confirm it. But it is accepted Sandilands had a limited secondary education. It would be unreasonable to expect he is conversant with the sordid details of Hitler’s murderous Third Reich.

If he were the first to attempt to equate contemporary Australia with Nazism, or the communist regime established by Lenin and Stalin, he would deserve the bagging he received. But it seems Sandilands is simply repeating a line of attack which he has heard well-educated Australians use over many years.

At times the democratic-Australia-equals-totalitarian-dictatorship line is run by quite able commentators who should know better. Just before the November 2007 election, Bruce Kent (an academic at the Australian National University) wrote an article alleging there was worrying similarity between some of the policies of the Coalition government and the Third Reich. Kent linked John Howard with such mass murderers as Hitler and Himmler.

In July, writing in the Crikey newsletter, Guy Rundle attempted to equate News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch with Stalin. Rundle assigned News personnel in Australia to the leading Bolsheviks of their day. John Hartigan was Lenin, Chris Mitchell was Bukharin and so on. Sure, Rundle is a part-time comedian. But there was a serious message to his historical vaudeville.

In the past decade, politicians have taken to casting the totalitarian stone with a vengeance. Just before the 1996 election, the Liberal frontbencher Amanda Vanstone devoted an entire speech to equating Paul Keating with Goebbels. I spoke to Vanstone about this at the time but failed to convince her there was no causal relationship between a democratic politician and a regime propagandist. In May, Steve Gibbons, the Labor MP for Bendigo, criticised Tony Abbott’s position on the pension by declaring he showed all the compassion of the Third Reich.

It’s not just scholars and politicians who bang the totalitarian drum in domestic debates. In December 2001, Chris Maxwell, QC, described the Howard government’s counter-terrorism legislation as redolent of Stalinist Russia. Maxwell is now president of the Victorian Court of Appeal. In October 2006, the ABC journalist Liz Jackson depicted the wish of the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, for balance on the ABC as verging on Stalinism.

On the ABC AM program yesterday, John Shovelan expressed concern about the tone of protests in the United States about some of Barack Obama’s policies. He quoted one banner directed at the President which declared Hitler gave good speeches too. And he quoted, with evident approval, a comment by a Washington Post journalist, Colbert King, that the ugliness and hatred directed towards Obama takes the breath away. Obama has also been equated by some critics with communism.

There is much to be said of the concern exhibited by Shovelan and King. But it should be remembered that George Bush was also linked to Hitler and was pilloried by the left. Some who, quite correctly, object to the sledging of Obama said little or nothing when Bush was the recipient of ugliness and hatred.

If some opinion leaders use “Nazi” or “fascist” or “communist” to denigrate political opponents, is it any wonder some demonstrators in the US and shock jocks in Australia will follow their lead?

Hyperbole has become a way of getting noticed in the never-ending news cycle. Exaggerated comments about the applicability of totalitarianism to contemporary democracies get a run because so little is known about the suffering of the victims of Hitler and Stalin.

Let’s welcome the fact that Sandilands’s comments on concentration camps have been bagged. But let’s hope that such condemnation is extended beyond the shock jock brigade.