Inside Story

Different questions for Q&A

Lost in the fog of the Zaky Mallah controversy are more fundamental questions about the ABC’s role in representative democracy, writes Ramon Lobato

Ramon Lobato 16 July 2015 1311 words

Narrowcasting: the Q&A audience watches as opposition leader Tony Abbott is interviewed by Tony Jones during the 2010 election campaign. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

In the weeks since Zaky Mallah’s Q&A appearance we’ve seen how a question of genuine interest and importance – whether our national broadcaster should give airtime to proponents of terrorism – can be sucked into the vortex of Canberra politics and spat out the other end as a question of left–right bias.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Mallah controversy, which has already produced two official inquiries, a mooted divisional reorganisation at the ABC, and a Coalition frontbench boycott, is how quickly the terms of the discussion shifted to suit the federal government’s long-running credibility war with the national broadcaster.

Tony Abbott accused the ABC of not being on Australia’s “side.” Other Coalition MPs suggested the ABC created a public safety risk by putting Mallah on air, and that his hate speech against prominent female journalists should have disqualified him from any media coverage at all. But the government’s take-home point, working as a master narrative underlying these criticisms, was that the Mallah incident revealed a systemic bias within the ABC, and that the broadcaster’s “error of judgement” was symptomatic of its sympathy for various left causes (a category now expanded to include Islamic extremism).

In his blunt but effective way, Abbott re-engineered the terms of the Mallah conversation to conform to his characterisation of the ABC as a “leftie lynch mob.” This was no surprise, given the distaste for the ABC expressed by most Coalition MPs, particularly those on the hard right of the party. While Abbott’s strategic thinking is clear, it is worth carefully scrutinising the justifications underlying these attacks, and the expectations placed on Q&A as a result.

To take the government at its word, this is a question of representation. Coalition MPs argue that Q&A fails in its mission to give voice to a diverse cross-section of community views, and that its microcosm of Australian political culture consistently over-represents the left. As Coalition senator James McGrath suggested during a Senate estimates hearing in May:

We have a flagship program here that consistently shows bias [against] those on the right or centre-right of politics. There will be someone from right of centre – on a good week two people who are centre or right of centre – and then three people who are clearly left of centre or clearly not supporters of the Coalition.

Abbott has made similar comments about Q&A’s “unrepresentative” nature, and the point has been echoed in public statements by many frontbenchers. But what does it mean to be representative or unrepresentative? What are the criteria against which this claim could fairly be judged?

There are at least two ways of thinking about representation as it applies to Q&A. The first is to assess representation in terms of how Q&A positions itself along a left–right spectrum and how adequately it gives voice to the political positions along this line. This is how the ABC’s inquiry, led by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown, is likely to approach the issue, using what media researchers call content analysis – counting guests, questions and time devoted to particular issues, designating them as left-leaning or right-leaning, and then arriving at some kind of determination of where Q&A lies on this spectrum.

This is a fairly impoverished way to think about representation. It relies on a static, one-dimensional model of politics, whose boundaries and centre are determined by the federal parliament of the day rather than by any sense of what matters to Australians. It also means that issues, particularly social policy issues, that don’t fit a ready-made left-to-right discourse struggle to be considered as properly political.

The assumption is that all Australians’ political views fall somewhere along the left-to-right axis, which is of course calibrated to the values of the major political parties. Within this context, the ABC is obliged to strive for a middle position, to occupy a “sensible centre” while giving some coverage to views positioned further (but not too far) in either direction.

The political strategy for both major parties is to try to shift the landscape so that their position appears closest to the centre. In the case of the Coalition’s response to Mallah, this means quarantining certain commonsense arguments – such as the suggestion that hard-line anti-terrorism rhetoric might be fuelling the recruiting efforts of ISIS and other groups – as beyond the bounds of the sayable. In the wake of the Q&A episode, this argument is now considered outrageous by virtue of the fact that it was aired by a disreputable and unpleasant individual. The real issue here is not so much Mallah’s right to be heard as how the boundaries of the political can conveniently be redrawn by such confected outrage.

The second way to think about representation is to ask how a program like Q&A might give voice to the political views of the population as a whole, as opposed to how it constructs a left–right discourse around the policy issues of the day. This is a difficult task, of course: it would require more complex and inventive approaches to audience and panel selection, topics and moderation. It is hard to see how Q&A’s usual audience (mainly made up of Young Liberal/Labor hacks, precocious students and partisan stakeholders) could reasonably constitute a nationally representative sample. But it is still a noble ideal, and one worth striving for.

Many other current affairs programs, including SBS’s Insight, try to do something along these lines. At the least, taking seriously this deeper notion of political representation would reveal that the narrow terrain of disagreement between Labor and Liberal that constitutes much of what passes for debate on Q&A does not represent anywhere near the extent of political culture in Australia.

Many Australians, for better or worse, struggle to see themselves anywhere on a left–right spectrum. As conceived in federal parliamentary politics, this spectrum is often dramatically out of alignment with the wider range of views in the Australian population, in terms both of the scope of debate and where the centre of gravity sits on particular issues. On asylum matters, for example, the difference between Liberal and Labor policies is now so slim as to be non-existent. On social policy issues like gay marriage, there is a yawning gulf between the politicians and the population. There are many other examples; the point is that to calibrate “representation” according to the positions of the major parties is to forego the possibility of a more far-reaching representation of the actual political views of the Australian population, whatever they may be.

Q&A, to its credit, does try hard to include a wider spectrum of opinion. Many of its most stimulating episodes feature interventions by speakers – including artists, activists and philosophers – from outside federal politics. The program is in the difficult position of having to juggle this idea-raising function with the tedious and unedifying spectacle of “balanced” coverage of Liberal–Labor disagreements. Its producers do a good job of managing the tensions, under very difficult circumstances.

But let’s not pretend that this constitutes meaningful political representation. If the ABC, and the government for that matter, were serious about wanting Q&A to “represent the views of the Australian population,” we’d have a different kind of program, one that spent considerably less time providing a space for Labor–Liberal policy disputes. But neither side of politics really wants to see that. •