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ABC Editorial Review no.6: Content, conduct and panel
composition of the Q&A program
(February – June 2015)
Q&A Review Final Report
Executive Summary 6
#1 Topics 16
#2 Panel Composition 19
#3 Moderation of Discussions 36
#4 Questions 58
#5 Studio Audiences 75
#6 Twitter Stream 91 List of Recommendations 102 Terms of Reference 105 Q&A Review Final Report Introduction The ABC Board announced on July 7, 2015 that it had appointed us to undertake a comprehensive, independent review of the weekly television program Q&A.
Together, we have almost a century of media experience in both public and commercial broadcasting, over three continents.
This is the sixth in a series of reviews commissioned by the ABC in fulfilling its requirements under the ABC Act.
The Terms of Reference, which are attached at the conclusion of this report, specifically asked the reviewers to examine 23 episodes of the program from Feb 2, 2015 until June 29, 2015 against the relevant Editorial Policies and Guidelines adopted by the ABC.
We were also asked to make recommendations about the program and any other related matters to the ABC Board.
Previous reviews commissioned by the ABC Board required the reviewers to base their conclusions solely on their assessment of the content of the relevant programs. This review required us also to examine the production and editorial processes under which Q&A operates.
To that end we questioned senior members of the production team, attended Q&A production meetings and observed the live production from both the audience seating and the control room. We were also given access to the Q&A database covering panelists, questioners and studio audiences.
On a visit to London in late September Ray Martin interviewed Ric Bailey, the former Executive Editor of Question Time, the long running BBC program in the UK which has a similar structure to Q&A in many respects.
Q&A Review Final Report Although not required to do so, we believed it relevant, and indeed critical by way of comparison, to also look at a significant number of Q&A programs in 2012 when the Federal Labor government was in office.
Despite some newspaper editorials and columns suggesting otherwise this was never intended to be an overall review of the ABC. Nor was it commissioned in response to the highly controversial program of June 22, 2015. The review of Q&A had already been identified by the ABC in advance of the controversial appearance on the program of Zaky Mallah, a former terrorism suspect.
Both the ABC’s Managing Director and Board subsequently apologised for the decision to allow Zaky Mallah to appear live on Q&A as part of the studio audience. The program’s Executive Producer, Peter McEvoy, also received a formal warning under the ABC’ s misconduct provisions.
This review does not re-visit the issue of Zaky Mallah’s appearance.
In the weeks following this controversy the media – in particular News Corp newspapers – expressed outrage at Q&A and the ABC in general.
The former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, imposed an immediate boycott on Government Ministers appearing on Q&A, colourfully arguing that the program was “out of control” and run by “a lefty lynch mob”.
In a number of editorials ‘The Australian’ newspaper variously commented that Q&A was ‘an antagonistic forum’, that this was ‘a scandal about bias, good taste and the responsibilities of the national broadcaster’, adding that the host and producers of the high-rating, flagship program ‘indulge themselves in green-left issues and advocates’ and feature ‘ leftist comedians, vulgar bloggers and visiting antiAmerican Americans.’ Q&A Review Final Report The Coalition Senate Leader, Senator Eric Abetz of Tasmania, was even more acerbic, remarking a fortnight after Zaky Mallah’s appearance that the Q&A panel “ is always stacked, the interruptions are always one-way traffic, the audience are hardly ever balanced and you sometimes shake your head and say ‘ Who is genuinely sitting back in ABC headquarters saying that this is a fair, reasonable, balanced show?’ “ On the other side of this prolonged public slanging match, the ABC
Board issued a statement that read:
“Q&A is an important program in the ABC television schedule.
It attracts a large, loyal and engaged audience. The Board considers that the program should have a long future on the ABC…” It was against this emotion-charged national divide that we began our detailed review of 23 episodes of Q&A.
Ray Martin Shaun Brown December 2015.
It is inevitable in a review of this nature that our findings tend to focus more on perceived shortcomings of the program than on areas where it operates well.
So it is appropriate to state in this summary that overall we have found Q&A to be a responsible, professional production that strives to meet the standards expected of it by the ABC and by the wider community.
We believe that acting on our conclusions and recommendations, usually in consequence of identified shortcomings, will assist the program to build on that foundation and will also provide the public with increased confidence in the program’s standing.
It is also one of the features of this type of review that it will identify deficiencies that may not be readily apparent to the production team. In particular what may seem to be appropriate production decisions in one program may be less valid when seen in the context of the cumulative effect of similar decisions across a number of programs.
Our review identified four key areas into which most of our conclusions and recommendations can be grouped. They are characterised by their relevance not to just one of the questions posed in our terms of reference but to several of them.
The most commonly expressed criticism is that the program lacks impartiality and maintains a left wing anti-Coalition bias. We believe, after close analysis, this general impression is not substantiated.
As can be seen from our report the program tends to provide a platform for critical (sometimes even hostile) scrutiny of the Government’s performance.
But, significantly, that negative focus, evident through the public and moderator questions, the panel commentary and the reaction of the studio audience and the Twitter stream, was applied in similar measure to the ALP when it was in Government in 20121.
During the 2015 review period the program represented a challenge to the Coalition Government not because it was the Coalition but because it was the Government.
We have concluded that, to a substantial degree, the persistent challenging of the Government of the day is not only inevitable but also desirable. Q&A functions not only as an arm of the Fourth Estate, with its attendant responsibilities to hold accountable those who exercise power, but it is also an important conduit for direct public participation in that process.
Government representatives, usually highly capable, senior Cabinet members, have much more time on Q&A than anyone else to answer the criticisms.
The focus on the Government of the day, although challenging, does not in our view breach ABC standards on impartiality. But it does place on the Q&A team a responsibility to ensure such scrutiny does not overwhelm other legitimate perspectives on the program. Or, particularly in the case of the Twitter stream, permit it to descend into cynicism.
Also 2013 in the case of the Twitter stream.
Q&A Review Final Report On occasions, in this report, we have recommended the program adjust that focus to ensure a broader diversity of perspectives including those that may represent a more positive view on the performance of the Government of the day.
The representation and participation of females on Q&A panels was significantly below that of their male counterparts. There were fewer female panelists and those that were selected were asked fewer questions and permitted far less time to speak.
The under-representation of women in Q&A discussions may not have been readily apparent to the program’s producers as it was created by the cumulative effect of a number of different decisions, some of which the producers may have felt were outside their control.
The program invariably having a male moderator heightened the perception of female under-representation.
But this is not a matter of perceptions alone. There were fewer female panelists in total (46% female to 54% male)2. This was due mainly to the under-representation of women selected to appear on behalf of the Coalition Government. Only 11% of Coalition panelists appearing in programs where they were matched against representatives of the Opposition were women.
The effect of this under-representation was then amplified firstly by the dominance of the Government contribution to discussions (from which the female perspective was largely absent) and secondly from the lesser amount of time and involvement made available to individual female panelists by the program moderator.
We acknowledge that there were fewer female Coalition members to chose from and that the final decision on which Government representative was to appear on Q&A may have been subject to party approval.
When two single gender programs are excluded the ratio is 57% male to 43% female.
1. Provide higher levels of female representation among political panelists and in particular among those representing the Government.
2. Ensure panels are not routinely composed of more men than women.
3. Ensure women panelists are treated equally in the allocation of questions and time.
We are not confident that the ABC Editorial Policies offer sufficient guidance on the equal treatment of women in information programs and recommend they be amended to rectify that.
Broadcasting nearly all the programs under review from a single Sydney location3 renders Q&A’s compliance with ABC Editorial Standards 4.24 and 4.55 impossible. It also undermines the program’s claim to represent “democracy in action”.
We should state from the outset that we accept that Q&A is broadcast mainly from the ABC studios in Ultimo because of logistical and budgetary constraints. Our understanding from comments made both by the Q&A team and ABC management is that the ABC would prefer that the program travel to other centres on a more regular basis but that the high financial costs involved have precluded that.
Question Time, the BBC program on which Q&A was originally based emanates from a different part of Britain almost every week. While a third of its broadcasts do come from London, they are almost always from a suburban town hall or public venue rather than the BBC studio.
This is a deliberate strategy to ensure that the program hears local questions and concerns right across the country6.
It is our conclusion that Q&A should also be broadcast from the fullest range of locations across Australia not just because it is preferable but because it is essential if deficiencies in the program’s performance against ABC standards are to be remedied.
Broadcasting mainly from a fixed location has created a Sydney-centric bias in the selection of panelists, audience and questions. There were more Sydney panelists than from all the other major cities combined.
Around 70% of all audiences and questioners lived in Sydney and about 85% of those came from the central and inner suburbs.
20 programs were broadcast from the Ultimo studios in Sydney, and one each from the Sydney Showground, Melbourne and Canberra.
Present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented.
Do not unduly favour one perspective over another.
Ric Bailey, Chief Advisor, Politics, BBC Q&A Review Final Report One of the consequences of audiences and questioners being drawn from such a constrained demographic “pool” is a high level of repeat attendees (around 20%) in the studio audience and a surprisingly high number of the same people asking questions on more than one program.
However large the population of the central and inner suburbs of Sydney it cannot be regarded as representative of all Australia. The perspectives of those who live elsewhere are not adequately represented among Q&A panelists, audiences, questioners and twitterati7.
Contributions to the twitter stream are affected by time zone rather than location constraints.
The program should develop and make public an explanation of the processes and protocols it uses to meet the standards required by the ABC Editorial Policies. This would increase public confidence in the program and also provide greater clarity within the production and the ABC generally of the program’s operating procedures.
There were a number of instances where the ABC Editorial Policies and the accompanying guidance notes did not provide relevant advice or instruction on issues arising from our review. We are not altogether surprised by that. Such documents cannot address every circumstance.
Furthermore Q&A does not fit comfortably into the traditional view of an information or current affairs program for which most of the Editorial Policies are written.
Yet we would suggest that Q&A is the ABC program that attracts media criticism and controversy on a more regular basis than any other. It is evident from our report that much of the criticism that we are aware of is not justified; certainly in the extreme language used. Some of it we believe results from a lack of understanding of the processes and protocols under which Q&A operates. That is understandable as such operating procedures are not public knowledge.
We believe they should be. Much of the detail that would belong in a published Q&A Program Principles already exists. The program has internal policies for the selection of audiences, panellists, questions and the twitter stream. But they are not documented let alone published.