Last Thursday, one of the ABC’s flagship political discussion shows, Q&A, failed to reach the top twenty of the most watched free-to-air programmes that evening. It performed worse than Gogglebox, a repeat of the previous night’s episode of The Chase, and something called Sammy J-EV. A similar result came in the week before.
Criticisms of Q&A are not new. Practically since it began, commentators have noted that the show is designed to fuel combat over discussion. The audience asks the questions–provided they ask questions approved by the producers. A few times, the audience has gone off script asking a question not cleared by the producers, with the host helpfully vetoing the spontaneous question and replacing it with the approved version instead. With an hour-long show and five panellists, each person has a theoretical maximum of 12 minutes to put forward their view on every topic covered in the episode. Thoughtful, insightful contributions to discussion are drowned out by snappy hot takes.
But there’s no reason for Q&A to be nearly as bad as it is. With a fraction of the budget, you could create a far superior show. Hell, if you got some clever buddies together, you could produce it in a living room and stream it on YouTube or Twitch from your apartment. Call it Frequently Asked Questions or some shit.
Panel discussions are notoriously awful. I only participate in panel discussions if I have a clear idea of what the chair of the panel wants out of the discussion and how I fit into that purpose. Ideally, a panel discussion does one and only one thing: shows an audience where the limits of reasonable disagreement are. Regardless of with whom you agree on the panel, you will agree with a reasonable position.
It is notoriously untrue that Q&A selects the limits of reasonable discussion. It regularly–for the sake of controversy–includes discussants who are manifestly unreasonable. Audiences are robbed of an opportunity to have their views challenged when your options are between somebody who is passably reasonable and somebody who is manifestly unreasonable.
Nobody needs to hear from homophobes, transphobes, and bigots. Nobody needs to hear from people who deny that climate change is real, or that people deserve to starve.
In response to this reputation for becoming something of a blood sport, over the past year Q&A became more tepid. We now get panels of a few politicians who recite their talking points, and then a handful of randoms. Q&A might not have been intellectually nourishing, but it was spicy. Now, it’s bland and empty.
Outsourcing the questions to the audience is both deceitful and unhelpful. First, we know it’s not really the audience asking the questions. It’s not like the show picks an audience member at random and gives them a soapbox for their question. Down that pathway lies madness. The selection process means we get the questions that the producers probably would have asked anyway (with the possible added bonus of personalisation to the question). The audience may ask the question provided it’s a question that the producers want asked.
Second, your average punter doesn’t ask good questions. Asking a good question is a skill. How often we’ve seen questions on Q&A where the person asking the question had clearly already made up their mind and just wanted their opinion repeated back to them? The question wasn’t an attempt to find out information; it was a statement in question disguise. Nobody goes back to ask the person asking the question what they mean, or what information could change their mind. At worst, the questions are merely a prompt for the panelists to decide which of their talking points might suit the moment.
The final critique here is the most damning: Q&A panelists routinely confuse the nature of fact and opinion. The worst example of this that I saw involved our response to the pandemic: there was not an agreed set of facts, so the discussants really weren’t in a conversation with each other. This should never happen on a panel show. The purpose of a panel show is to show how people can form reasonable disagreements based on shared facts. It is unhelpful for a participant to enter the discussion with entirely unverified, unheralded ‘facts’, because there is no third party to verify the fact, or for the other participants to have considered the fact seriously ahead of time.
From all of that flows the conclusion: Q&A isn’t worth saving in its current form.
But–shit–if I had the resources that were pissed away on Q&A, I would definitely want to create something that was worthwhile, useful, and contributed towards building a better political culture in Australia. And I would start with having the clear objective in mind: the purpose of the show is to give audiences an opportunity to see reasonable disagreements based on shared facts. You have a show with an agreed source of facts who presents factual material to the audience but does not participate in the analysis; you then have a discussion between people who have reasonable disagreements about how to understand, adopt, and use the factual material for political engagement. You have it chaired by a person who pushes the disagreement in constructive ways, and you have it include people who can concede that people are able to disagree without being liars, frauds, or morons.
Give me the sack of cash, ABC, and I will build you a better Q&A.