An ABC QandA case study

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In a follow-up to last week’s investigation into ABC Q&A, managing editor David Donovan presents a case study on how the show selects its panellists, based on his own firsthand experience. He also reviews tonight’s show and looks at the public reaction to his original research.

Adventures in autocracy part 3: an ABC Q&A case study

Independent Australia’s study into the selection of guests and range of views presented on ABC’s Q&A program was easily our most popular story last week. Clearly, our findings – that the ABC present a limited Sydney-centric range of views and personalities – have hit a chord. You can find the general feeling by looking at some of the Twitter comments.

It even spawned an interesting discussion on ABC Victoria between charming weekday morning presenter Fiona Parker and RMIT journalism school lecturer Dr Vincent O’Donnell (a former filmmaker) last Thursday.

[Listen to this interview online by clicking here].

Unsurprisingly, given the “Insiders” phenomenon prevalent within the Australian media industry, O’Donnell spent most of the interview defending the selections of ACM Q&A Executive Producer Peter McEvoy, whom he said he had spoken to the day before. O’Donnell started by saying the Q&A study was of “limited value”. Amongst other gems, he then went on to say that only very few people in Australia could speak well in the Q&A panel format; that the ABC preferred people from the IPA because it was so difficult to find coherent right-wing voices; and that the panellists were mainly from Sydney because the show was filmed in Sydney and so, since the producers saw people from Sydney in the media more often, this resulted in their “unconscious bias” towards them. (Oh dear.) Then, O’Donnell said the people who appeared on Q&A the most [see figure 1] were selected because they were all “good looking”. At that, the presenter couldn’t restrain herself from interjecting, saying: “What, really? Barnaby Joyce?”

One can only hope O’Donnell expects better analysis from his students. Fail, Vincent, fail.

I’ll go into more detail next Monday about why, in fact, the Q&A study is important, explaining how and why the ABC Q&A programme and the guests it selects is emblematic of the ABC’s Sydney-centric focus and extremely narrow range of views. Today, however, I am going to present a case study of a particular Q&A programme in which I had some personal involvement with the ABC producers as they were looking for talent. Before that, however, I will quickly review tonight’s show, based on my research.

Figure 1:


Tonight’s Q&A is a glittering and precious gem; a rarity in the history of the programme — a show without any sitting or former MPs on the panel. As mentioned in the study, close to 100 per cent of Q&A’s have two MP’s, one each from the Liberal and Labor Partys. Also unusual is the wide geographic distribution of the guests (UK, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and the USA). In other respects, however, this show continues in a rich Q&A tradition of narrowness and predictability.

Appearing tonight is famous Australian feminist Germaine Greer — for no less than the fifth time [note figure 1 above]. Feminism is a popular topic on the show, with numerous appearances on the programme by well-known feminists, including (amongst others) Anne Summers (2 appearances), Eva Cox (3) and Catherine Deveny (4).

Also appearing tonight, though for the first time, is Melbourne-based right-wing marketeer Toby Ralph, who has never found a cause so appallingly obnoxious he wouldn’t try to flog it to an unsuspecting public. “I like working for things where people's first reaction is to say: 'that's wrong',” declares Toby in his (presumably) self-written ABC Q&A bio, where he describes himself as a taxi-like “… marketing strategist whose clients include tobacco companies, the nuclear waste industry, live meat exports, Murray Basin irrigators and banks.”

Interesting indeed that Toby represents nuclear waste interests, since no anti-nuclear campaigner has ever appeared on Q&A. Not even the world famous former Nobel Peace prize nominee Dr Helen Caldicott, someone of the same vintage as Germaine Greer, who has been described by Meryl Streep as her “inspiration to speak out” against the nuclear industry. However, unlike Greer, Caldicott is still a constant fixture in the world media following the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Fukushima last year. In fact, Q&A has never discussed the impact of Fukushima, or nuclear weapons proliferation, or the Federal Government’s decision to allow uranium exports to India, or its plans to build the world’s biggest uranium mine at Olympic Dam in South Australia, or its plans to dump nuclear waste at Muckaty Station in the Australia’s Northern Territory. And also, unlike Greer, Dr Caldicott lives in Australia — in rural NSW. Considering close to half of all Q&A’s guests reside in NSW, you might think this would suit the producers; yet she has never been approached. Of course, the nuclear issue is merely an (albeit important) example; there are many other important world issues, and voices speaking up about these issues, that Q&A similarly excludes from the debate.

Also new tonight is Benjamin Law, the Brisbane author of just a single book, the black comedy memoir The Family Law. Though he is new to the show, his profession (writing) and cause (gay rights) are far from making their first appearance. In fact, after tonight, writers (22 apps) become the fifth most popular profession on Q&A, moving one ahead of comedians (21) [refer figure 2, below].

Former singer from Machine Gun Fellatio, Sydneysider Christa Hughes is also making her first appearance tonight, though her profession, singer, when combined with the category ‘musician’, is the equal 10th most popular profession seen on Q&A, along with actors (9 apps for each) [also refer figure 2]

Finally, Q&A has Californian anti-porn crusading pastor Craig Gross on the show, also for his first appearance. Nuclear energy is uncontroversial at Ultimo, but someone on the Q&A payroll is making a stand against the evils of pornography, because this is the fifth time they have invited an anti-porn lobbyist to appear on Q&A, as well as the third different individual — with Melinda Tankard Reist (3 apps) and Gail Dines (1).


[Watch the ABC Q&A "Royal Wedding Special" online.]

How the ABC selects its guests for Q&A has been of particular interest to me since before the program did its ‘Royal Wedding Special”, in April 2011. Back then, I was the media director for Australia’s peak republican lobby group, the Australian Republican Movement. We were told the special would “rekindle the republican debate” and, of course, were extremely excited about the opportunity it presented.

My direct involvement began when one of the show’s producers asked our assistance to find appropriate republicans to appear as guests. Of course, we suggested our main spokespersons, the distinguished chair of the ARM, Major General Mike Keating; his deputy, the eminent political scientist and Canberra Times columnist, Professor John Warhurst; and a number of others, including former ARM chair and prominent Melbourne barrister and former political advisor Greg Barns.

Surprisingly, Q&A didn’t seem very interested in our views on that score. It seemed they mostly wanted our help to find an Indigenous republican; and so we offered several names, including Noel Pearson and Larissa Behrendt — all of the names we suggested were prominent Republicans who had at least had some contact with the ARM since the epochal referendum defeat of 1999.

Q&A completely ignored all of our suggestions.

Eventually, we were informed that speaking for the Republic would be former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone (3 apps), former NSW premier Bob Carr (3) and Indigenous activist Professor Marcia Langton (3) — none of whom had any involvement with the ARM or the debate, as far as we could see, since before the 1999 referendum. In fact, we had to go back to Q&A to confirm that the so-called “Indigenous republican”, Marcia Langton, was a Republican at all — as we could not find any public statements she had ever made on the subject. The producer assured us she was. Of course, the transcript of the program belies this assurance, as Langton – when she could begrudgingly be persuaded to talk about the topic in question, an Australian Republic – was generally negative or even hostile towards the idea — arguing vocally for the ceremonial appeal of the monarchy to Indigenous Australians.

The monarchists may have been similarly unenthused with Q&A’s choices on their behalf. The chairs of neither of the two major monarchist groups – David Flint from ACM or Phillip Benwell from AML – were invited on the programme. Instead, invited on was Aron Paul, an obscure Melbourne based writer; Angela Bishop (her only appearance on Q&A so far), a TV entertainment “reporter” whose only link to the issue was that her mother, Bronwyn Bishop MP (1) is a staunch monarchist; and Nick Minchin MP (6) who, like Vanstone, was a monarchist whose last significant activity in the debate occurred prior to the 1999 referendum. They may have been less impressed when Aron Paul was bumped into the audience at the last minute for republican Craig Reucassel (2), star of ABC's The Chaser, which has just received blanket publicity due to the Palace’s successful censorship of their broadcast of the royal wedding.

I watched the Q&A “Royal Wedding Special” at my home seated next to an increasingly stony-faced ARM chair Major General Mike Keating. Reucassel provided the only brightness in an otherwise unmemorable, and almost embarrassingly shallow, presentation. No-one on the programme had any idea the ARM had changed its new policy since 1999 and had moved on from the unpopular minimalist model presented to the people in that referendum. Indeed, the minimalist model was the only one promoted by the republican voices on the programme — Amanda Vanstone talking up this same failed model and Bob Carr proposing an even more minimalist model he had apparently devised himself. (He had never told us about it.) As for the others, Langton was rambling and off-topic; Angela Bishop simply didn’t know the first thing about the subject; and Nick Minchin refused to debate any issue, simply repeating the line that the Governor-General was head of state ad nauseum with an annoying self-satisfied smirk plastered over his face.

To demonstrate the level of intensity of the debate, Bob Carr, perhaps the leading spokesperson for the Republic on the show, at one point declared “I'm not a passionate republican”; cue groans from millions of passionate Australian Republicans.

Figure 2:

The show, of course, was a dismal disaster, for the ABC, but more especially for the Republican cause — a lobby group deemed by the ABC – unlike the 74 other special interest lobbyists [see figure 2 above] that have appeared on the show since its inception – unworthy of even presenting its own case. Of course, monarchists were also regarded as being no-hopers, though this provided us with scant satisfaction. In the short term, this one show effectively shut the door on any serious republican debate for some time.

Prominent republican (and IA senior correspondent) Barry Everingham, was also contacted by the same Q&A producer before the show. Here, he gives his take on the shambles that was the Q&A “Royal Wedding Special”:
‘I was contacted by the Q&A researcher for the programme on the republic/monarchy. She called back on the morning the programme was to be aired and told me I would not be used. I told the researcher the programme would have no credibility if it went ahead without myself and David Flint – or others of that weight – to discuss the issue. The programme was a disgrace, and using Angela Bishop was insanity — she had absolutely nothing to say which could have been taken seriously.’
[Read Barry Everingham's review of this show]

Why did the producers of Q&A select the people they did? Knowing what I know now, it is clearly apparent that what Q&A really wanted were panellists from Sydney, or panellists they loved (Minchin and Vanstone). Out of the six guests finally selected, only Vanstone and Minchin came from outside Sydney — Bishop, Reucassel, Langton and Carr all resided within a few miles of Ultimo.

Q&A does favour Sydney guests and they appear to do it quite deliberately. Tonight’s show, with only one guest from the NSW capital, is a very rare and precious bird indeed.

Major General (ret'd) Michael Keating - deemed unworthy to appear on Q&A

More importantly than this, however, is the fact that Q&A makes value judgements about who is appropriate to appear on the show. To think that the Defence Force’s chief commander in the East Timor peacekeeping operation, Major General Mike Keating, would freeze, or not be able to adequately state his case in a Sydney studio filled with noisy 20-year-olds – as Peter McEvoy apparently inferred to Vincent O’Donnell was the reason for non-selection of many guests and was suggested in their correspondence with me – lacks any reality, credibility or substance. As for the non-selection of someone with the vast media experience of David Flint, the former chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority — well, the mind boggles.


My first-hand experience with Q&A made me look at the show, from then on, with a more critical eye. Over time, I could see the trends, the narrow worldview and the emphasis on guests from near the studio. This led me to do my painstaking research into this highly influential "current affairs" program.

This research shows that Q&A plays favourites and presents its own view of who and what is important to the world — entirely ignoring debates that don’t interest them. As a result, Australia’s public is less well informed and the standard of public debate – as can be seen by the appallingly sub-standard Q&A ‘Royal Wedding Special’ – is poorer and less robust.

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