An ABC QandA adventure in false balance

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Managing editor David Donovan completes the final part of his research on the ABC Q&A program, by looking at the way it creates false debate on non-controversial issues, while stifling debate about matters that are truly important.

From The Age, 26 March 2012
(click on image to see full-size)

My research into the biased and unbalanced nature of the ABC Q&A program continues to attract interest across the nation, with last week’s story having been read by thousands of people, written about in The Age today (26 March) (note image right) and attracting comment from a large number of disgruntled ABC viewers, including the ABC supporters group ‘The Friends of the ABC’ and prominent barrister Greg Barns. Greg Barns was particularly piqued by our case study of last year’s ‘Royal Wedding Special”, making the following statement exclusive to IA:

‘Q and A is risking becoming a program for pop stars. The Royal Wedding special was a fine opportunity to talk about serious issues around national identity but it was flaky shallow job one does not expect from the national broadcaster. ‘I am told Q and A is less likely to have you on if, like me, you live outside Sydney, because they have to pay your travel! So it sacrifices quality and national diversity for a few dollars savings.’

Friends of the ABC (NSW) applauded the IA research, noting that it provides evidence the ABC is becoming more Sydney-centric, even though the ABC charter is to serve all Australians. In another IA exclusive, it said:

‘Friends of the ABC (NSW) applauds the study of Q&A by Independent Australia – it provides more hard evidence that the ABC is becoming more and more “Sydney-centric” even though its charter clearly states that it is to serve the needs of all Australians. ‘Once thriving and busy studios in other capital cities have been closed and staff “let go”, resulting in ABC redundancy bills of $3.1m in 2010 and $7.3m in 2011. The loss of skills, expertise, experience and culture has been catastrophic. Whilst ABC management may argue efficiency and cost-saving, we must ask whether Australia deserves better from a publicly-funded “national” broadcaster.’

Figure 1 (Q&A’s regional bias):


The only people who seemed to be studiously ignoring the research were the ABC themselves. I will talk more about them and the rather dismissive way they deal with enquiries later in the piece, comparing it with the approach of the UK public broadcaster, the BBC. I will also look at the way the ABC is playing a two-card trick on the Australian people through programs like Q&A – and many others – by stimulating debate on issues in which there is no genuine debate, while avoiding debate on other truly contentious, and highly important, issues.
Firstly, however, let’s review tonight’s episode of Q&A based on the research.

Q&A Queensland election episode

Tonight’s (26 March) episode of Q&A is (was) billed as a wrap of the Queensland State election that was held on Saturday. Consequently, you might have expected someone with a deep understanding of Queensland State politics to appear — perhaps a former or current Queensland MLC?
Not to be — instead, even though tonight’s Q&A does feature three Queenslanders, not one of them is involved in state politics: Craig Emerson (Brisbane, appearing on Q&A for an astonishing 10th time) is the Federal Trade Minister; Senator George Brandis (Brisbane, 8 apps) is the Federal Opposition’s shadow Attorney-General; and Larissa Waters (Brisbane, 2 apps) is a newly elected senator for the Greens. Of the other two guests, Grahame Morris (4 apps) was formerly John Howard’s Chief of Staff and is now a lobbyist for Barton Deakin Government Relations; while the only new face on the show tonight, Liberty Sanger, is a Melbourne-based lawyer working for Maurice Blackburn, as well as the wife of Victorian Labor Senator David Feeney.
The average number of appearances on Q&A for tonight’s guests is a whopping 5 (25 total appearances by five guests). Q&A, as usual, does not offer a diversity of voices, but essentially the same few voices from the major political parties week after week. It is a slightly alarming fact that, of the 690 panel spots offered by Q&A since it began in 2008, 356 of them (51.6%) have been filled by just 71 different people (the people who have been on Q&A 3 or more times, note figure 2). Figure 2 (The elite 71):

Of course, having the same people on week after week means fewer different voices are heard. As you can see from figure 1 above, even though Queensland has had 60 total appearances, only 24 different Queenslanders have appeared on the panel (as opposed to NSW with 323 appearances and 158 different panellists). Figure 1 is also interesting because it shows that Australia’s fourth most populous state, Western Australia, has had less different guests on Q&A (12) than the UK (16). Meanwhile, Tasmania (11), the ACT (10) and the NT (7) have had less different people on the show than both the UK and the USA (12).
Why does Q&A feature the same voices over and over again? In its response to questions from IA [see the ABC's full responses to our questions at the end of the article], it says this is because

Usually two and sometimes three politicians are included on each panel. The small number of senior politicians inevitably leads to repeat appearances.”

This response is belied by Figure 2, which shows many of the “elite” are not politicians at all — but are more often than not News Ltd or Fairfax journalists, or lobbyists, actors, comedians, business executives, political staffers and even scientists (along with many other non-politicians). But even if we ignore this and take the ABC’s claim at face value, some senior politicians, as you can see by figure 3, have never been selected to appear on Q&A, including former deputy Labor leader Jenny Macklin and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson. Figure 3 (The political non-elite):

The ABC’s false balance

Q&A has been touched by controversy for almost its entire existence. As early as series one, in 2008, it was accused by conservatives of having on more progressive panellists (and even audience members) than conservatives (an assertion my research indicates, in fact, is false). The selection of the tweets it chooses to broadcast while the show airs has also raised some eyebrows, and even led to a public apology to Christopher Pyne on one occasion. Also, in 2010, a lobbyist for Gunn’s pulp mill, Sue Cato, appeared on the show without her paymaster being properly disclosed to viewers. (We will discuss how Q&A continues to neglect to properly accredit lobbyists from the IPA later in this piece.)
But it is its treatment of the debate over climate science and carbon pollution that has led to the majority of criticism from viewers. The criticism is mainly to do with the fact that even though anthropogenic (man-made) climate change science has now been scientifically established beyond any significant scientific doubt, Q&A repeatedly questions the science of climate change and puts denialists on the show, thereby creating the illusion that there is a real and current scientific controversy. This is when a debate is even allowed about carbon pollution and how to deal with it.
In May 2011, for example, with the assistance of e-democracy platform OurSay, Q&A producer Peter McEvoy decided to permit the tiniest exercise of democracy on the program, by allowing the popular selection of a single question for the panel on one particular night. Freelance journalist and OurSay volunteer Gary Newman explained the situation in Crikey:

‘McEvoy decided to let the public democratically select a question by popular vote, via the e-democracy platform developed by democratic media organisation OurSay. Ordinary citizens were invited to post questions on OurSay’s blic voted via the question they liked the most, using Facebook and Twitter to inspire others to follow suit.’

The question chosen to be read out, however – a rather banal one about education – turned out to not be the question that had received the most votes on OurSay.
Newman explains that the question selected

‘… was not the question that had received the most votes but was in fact chosen by McEvoy, Q&A’s very own “invisible despot” in the control room above the audience, albeit from the “top five” questions as voted by the public via OurSay. When it came to the crunch, McEvoy couldn’t bring himself to entrust the people with power over the agenda. He chose the question he thought was the most relevant and entertaining. ‘The winning question from Leigh Ewbank read: “The government is investing $40 billion in the National Broadband Network and up to $50 billion for a new submarine fleet. Given that dealing with climate change is a priority for the Gillard government and the Australian public, why won’t it invest a similar amount in a nation-building renewable energy project with the scale and vision of a Snowy Mountains Scheme for the 21st century?”’

It seems that McEvoy had only technically agreed to use one of the top questions, despite the top question being the most popular on OurSay by a margin of 50%.
Newman explains Our Say’s disappointment at the decision and the Q&A team’s interesting response:

‘… OurSay made numerous requests to McEvoy’s team that the top question be used, but these were ignored. ‘After the show, when I put to Tony Jones that this whole exercise demonstrated Q&A was in fact a dictatorship, McEvoy was present and acknowledged with a laugh that this was indeed the case. And therein lies the reality check: Q&A is in fact not democratic media. It is nothing more than an adventure in autocracy, cleverly repackaged to make us feel as though we are controlling the news agenda.’

Why did McEvoy not want a debate about renewable energy?

McEvoy however, about a month later, was happy to allow 27-year-old James Brechney to ask Labor’s Peter Garrett the following question, which cast doubt on the science of climate change:

“I’m not a climate scientist, but climate change is still disputed by experts. Why are we teaching it in schools as a scientific fact? Shouldn’t we be following the UK’s lead and bringing science back to basics in the classroom?”

Brechney later interjected in the debate to say that climate change was “just a theory, like gravity”, describing himself as an “evangelical revolutionary”.
But, in a twist – rather than being a denialist – Brechney was, in fact, making an ironic point about Q&A’s false balance on the issue of climate change.
From Sally Jackson in The Australian:

‘… [Brechney] said he was also trying to make a more serious point about how “those kind of extreme questions still get treated as legitimate by the news media”. ‘”It was a statement on the whole debate on how the news media reports climate change, trying to give both sides a legitimate standing,” he said. “And it’s about saying that even Q&A, in part, is an entertainment show. ‘”The producers cherrypick the questions that they want to be asked from the audience’s submissions . . . often for entertainment value as opposed to anything really substantial.” ‘The wording for his question was inspired by the song I’m A Climate Scientist from another ABC program, Hungry Beast, he said.’

Yes, even though studies repeatedly show that 97-98% of climate scientists agree the world is warming as the result of human intervention, when discussing climate change, Q&A continues to treat the science as a true, rather than an artificially created, controversy.
Artificially created, because essentially the only people objecting to climate science are paid by vested interests, of that there is absolutely no doubt.

The ABC protected IPA

Q&A’s campaign to create controversy over climate science includes numerous appearances from the organisation Professor Clive Hamilton describes as the “the primary source of anti-climate change propaganda in Australia”, the Institute of Public Affairs — which has appeared on the show at least 11 times, the most by any “thinktank”. Despite the IPA receiving funding from, and clearly promoting the interests of, the fossil fuel lobby, mining and the notorious Heartland Institute, the IPA is rather misleadingly described by Q&A as simply a “free market thinktank”.
Clive Hamilton (zero apps) provides detail about who the IPA lobbies for as it spreads its message of climate change denial:

‘The IPA is notoriously secretive about its sources of funding. Its senior staff have refused to answer journalists’ questions, although over the years enough information has leaked out to suggest that much of its funding has come from the oil and mining industries, including Exxon, Shell, Caltex and BHP-Billiton. The IPA’s executive director John Roskam, who used to work for Rio Tinto, has said that donors to the Institute want to remain anonymous because they “have been intimidated because of their supposed support for us”.’

Of course, the ABC does not declare the IPA’s true status, because the IPA does not make its funding sources explicit, in a cosy sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement. Clive Hamilton explains the affair:

‘While we cannot be sure why the IPA refuses to come clean about its sources of funds, or what those sources are, if it were to be revealed that they included the mining industry or mining magnates then journalists would be obliged to report the fact each time they wrote a story about the IPA. The environment groups that the IPA has attacked for lack of accountability are transparent about their funding, yet the IPA knows that its credibility would be shot if it were seen to be the mouthpiece of big business with an interest in undermining climate science and climate policy.’

It should be recognised that other ABC journalists and journals refuse to acknowledge, or investigate, the IPA’s funding sources, including the prominent ABC Melbourne radio presenter Jon Faine, who has the IPA’s John Roskam on the show every Friday for his weekly wrap. When questioned about this by IA environment editor Sandi Keane, Faine was dismissive:

“[The] IPA position is what it is…[and] they are as entitled to be heard as anyone else, regardless of their $ source”.

But the question is, does the public have a right to know about the IPA’s funding, given they act as a lobbying organisation, including putting full-page ads in newspapers protesting against Government policy? Having a lobbyist not declare his or her funding caused great controversy on Q&A with Sue Cato and Gunn’s, as we discussed above — so why is the IPA above all that? Indeed, why is the IPA such a protected species at the ABC? It should be recognised that the IPA is an organisation intrinsically linked to the Liberal Party, being one of a number of groups that came together to form the Liberal Party after the collapse of the UAP in the 1940s.

The ABC versus the BBC

The attitude of the ABC in presenting the climate change debate should be compared with that of the BBC. Environment editor Sandi Keane (a former ABC employee) wrote emails to both the ABC and the BBC asking about their approaches to presenting the science climate change, especially about the notion of providing “balance”. Tellingly, the BBC replied quickly with a several thousand hand-typed words explaining their approach, while the ABC has still not responded — even now, several weeks later. (This corresponds with my own experience dealing with the ABC.) Sandi’s story will be reported in IA soon, but – to paraphrase the BBC correspondent – the BBC’s approach is to not provide equal weighting to climate change denialists because the science of climate change is not, in their view, at all controversial. In other words, they regard the science as established and the key concepts largely settled, therefore reporting outlying views is neither essential to nor, in fact, in the public interest.
Yet, while the ABC continues the false debate on whether climate change is actually happening, not only on Q&A, but also on its other platforms such as The Drum, it avoids topics that follow on from an acceptance of global warming — namely, what to do in response. To demonstrate this, Q&A has, for instance, never had anyone from the renewable energy sector on the programme (potential candidates being wind entrepreneur Simon Holmes a Court and UNSW scientist Dr Mark Diesendorf). Not even despite the huge public controversy over the apocryphal “wind turbine syndrome” stirred up by the IPA-created anti-windfarm astroturf organisations The Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation (as exposed on IA).
And despite the continuing controversy over coal seam gas extraction, which is the supposed “greener” fossil fuel, Q&A has never had an anti-CSG campaigner on the programme, not even the prominent Lock the Gate chief Drew Hutton. (Perhaps the producers of Q&A feel secure in the knowledge a coal seam gas well will never be tapped near their Ultimo studio.)
And despite Energy Minister Martin Ferguson (zero apps) speaking positively about the advantages of nuclear energy for Australia in response to climate change, Q&A has never had a debate about nuclear power or uranium sales. And, as we discussed last week, Q&A has never had an anti-nuclear proponent on the show – not even the NSW-based former Nobel Prize nominee Dr Helen Caldicott – though they have had pro-nuclear voices.
Q&A, by focussing on a false debate about the merits of climate change science, neglects the real debate — how we will get our energy in the future without burning carbon. This neglect leaves Australians less informed about this vital issue.


Of course, the climate change debate is merely an example of the way Q&A picks and chooses who gets to present their case. You might also look at the way Q&A selects safe establishment-oriented Indigenous panellists, such as Marcia Langton (3), Mick Gooda (1) and Bess Price (1), rather than more outspoken Indigenous figures advocating Indigenous sovereignty, such as Gary Foley or Michael Anderson, or those battling mining interests, such as Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Michael Woodley, whose bitter battle against Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metals continues to this very day.
While these vital debates are ignored, Q&A puts up, in the main, politicians and News Corporation journalists week in ‘weak’ out, to debate the same safe issues, such as gay marriage, pornography, the ALP leadership and the latest Federal opinion polls. The question that hasn’t been answered, in all my research, is why the ABC – a supposedly independent broadcaster – allows this.


Read the terse response by the ABC Q&A producer to my questions, received several weeks after the initial query:

Read the other stories in this series along with the original research:


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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