I’m conservative; I’m supposed to hate the ABC and call for it to be privatised and whatever. It should hardly shock anybody that I’d write a blog post that’s critical of Q&A, especially after it put a freaking rogue like Zaky Mallah in the audience. I’ll let others do the clutching at pearls. It seems fairly clear that the ABC worked out for themselves that it was a massive error of judgement, regardless of what the contrarians with a partisan bent are trying to argue today. The ABC board has asked for a review of Q&A, a review into what Malcolm Turnbull calls ‘the whole gamut of issues relating to Q&A, audience composition, choice of topics, choice of guests, objectivity, balance.’
For what it’s worth, I actually don’t mind if Q&A (and the whole Monday night ABC line up) is left-leaning. I’ve argued this point before. I’ve also argued that — much to my annoyance — Australian conservatives aren’t worth having on TV:
As I see it, the problem is that there are very few right wing commentators in Australia who aren’t just trolling for attention. Ackerman’s performance this morning showed that he was more interested in maximising his air time at the expense of a sensible conversation about politics.
At the end of the day, having commentators like Ackerman (and, previously, Andrew Bolt) on the show seemed more like the ABC trying to trivialise and ridicule right wingers than include them in mainstream political conversation. News Ltd papers use Ackerman and Bolt (and the myriad of others) for linkbait. They say outrageous things and all the lefties click on the links just for the experience of being outraged. The left is the profitable target audience for Ackerman and Bolt.
Instead, I want to look at a different problem: Q&A‘s reliance on stunts to draw an audience.
On 14 March 2011, Q&A hosted a Prime Minister Only Special with Julia Gillard. Towards the end of the evening, after she’d done a fairly good job of taking hostile questions, Tony Jones through to a video question from a gloomy-faced Julian Assange:
JULIAN ASSANGE: Prime Minister, you just got back from Washington but what Australian citizens want to know is which country do you represent? Do you represent Australians and will you fight for Australian interests because it’s not the first time that you or a member of your cabinet has been into a US government building and exchanged information. In fact, we have intelligence that your government has been exchanging information with foreign powers about Australian citizens working for Wikileaks. So Prime Minister, my question to you is this: when will you come clean about precisely what information you have supplied the foreign powers about Australian citizens working or affiliated with Wikileaks and if you cannot give a full and frank answer to that question, should perhaps the Australian people consider charging you with treason?
It ruffled Gillard somewhat, and Assange never released this explosive information, but it did the trick for Q&A. Look at them being controversial! Look at them pushing the debate into edgy new territory!
A bit over a year later, we had the Richard Dawkins versus George Pell ‘debate’ where two old men were unpleasant to each other for a bit over an hour. Neither really spoke to the other, but it sure was edgy and controversial.
Q&A‘s professed love for stunts — edgy and controversial pushing of the discussion — was an unrequited love. When students pushed an edgy and controversial stunt on 5 May — springing a protest upon the stage and chanting about fees — Tony Jones apologised for the disruption:
We had a little musical interlude there, while we get democracy back on track. OK. Apologies to the Minister. Apologies to everyone on the panel. Apologies to the wider audience watching. That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about and those students should understand that.
Stunts are okay when they’re safe, planned, and leave Tony Jones in a position of control. Guests can be thrown into really unpleasant — and, frankly, unfair — situations. But nobody does that to Tony Jones.
It also betrays something deeper about the Q&A mindset: the stunts need to be planned because they fundamentally doubt the quality of the product being pushed: quality discussion about politics. Each week, we get an opportunity to start a conversation between the unwashed public and various public figures. Instead, we get journalists, comedians, and other dopey halfwits on the panel who come with pre-planned talking points and no real interest in engaging with discussion.
It’s why Tony Jones throws to each member of the panel in turn for their soundbite instead of fostering some kind of conversation or dialogue. It’s also why Tony Jones seems so uncomfortable and awkward when the discussion strays away from his control. When Trisha Jha (Centre for Independent Studies) tried to call out Andrew Leigh on (what she perceived to be) inaccuracies about the evidence in the policy discussion, Jones had to quickly draw it back away from an exchange and return it to set pieces in a determined order.
It’s not like Tony Jones has anything to contribute to the discussion, mind. When discussing asylum seeker policy with Speak Bronwyn Bishop, he asked:
TONY JONES: But is it a problem, theoretically, if you take the sugar off the table and put it on the boat?
Or when he asked:
TONY JONES: A quick answer on this one, if it were proven that Australian officials bribed people smugglers, it is not clear obviously at this stage, but if it were proven would that be illegal in the way that bribing Australian Wheat Board executives was illegal?
‘A quick answer on this one’? ‘Bribed’? What the hell kind of questions are these? The question boils down to ‘If it is a crime, is it a crime?’
Jones himself struggles to engage with a discussion, preferring to interrogate with loaded questions, Lateline-style. No wonder the show feels the need to resort to stunts.
Everybody has their theory on how to improve Q&A. Here’s mine: focus on having a discussion instead of trying to stir up controversy. It might not result in good clickbait copy for the next day, but at least it would be a meaningful hour-and-a-bit of television. Why invite people on when you already know what they’re going to say? Why invite people on when they are only capable of shallow, partisan, or otherwise banal (hi, Jane Caro) commentary? Surely it can’t be that difficult to find some public intellectuals worth hearing from.