«December 2015 Q&A Review Final Report Contents Introduction 3 Executive Summary 6 Questions #1 Topics 16 #2 Panel Composition 19 #3 Moderation of ...»
There are other areas, such as the role of the moderator, where we believe even the exercise of defining the mandate and limits of that position would be beneficial to all parties.
The Q&A Program Principles should be an explanation of the means by which the program ensures it conforms with the relevant ABC Editorial Policies and should cover all the elements of the program subject to this review: Topics, Panels, Audience, Moderator, Questions and Social Media.
Q&A Review Final Report We make this recommendation not with the intention of shackling the program but rather to free it from the sort of ill-informed criticism it has received based on an assumption that the program operates in an arbitrary manner. We believe Q&A has nothing to fear, and much to gain, by offering transparency of process and protocols to all its stakeholders.
There are a number of other conclusions reached and recommendations made that fall outside the four key findings described above.
On some occasions we identify shortcomings and make no recommendation on the basis that we believe they are isolated lapses of judgement and not related to any systemic issue. Even the most stringent precautions and professional processes will not eliminate errors from high-pressure, live productions such as Q&A.
Among the formal recommendations we have made are:
In the Panels section we recommend that the selection of panelists be adjusted to provide more Federal Parliamentary representatives from the Greens and Independents. And among the overseas guests greater effort should be made to hear from more Conservative leaning panelists.
Consideration should also be given to a modest increase in the number of panelists aged 35 and under.
In the Questions section we recommend that in certain circumstances relevant background information on the questioner’s affiliation or qualification be provided by means of introduction – either by the questioner or the moderator. We recommend a greater number of questions be selected from the over-35 age group and repeat questioners should be allowed only on an exceptional basis.
In the Studio Audiences section we recommend the age profile of the audiences be adjusted to include more attendees from the over-35 age group.
In the Twitter Stream section we recommend that the simulcast on ABC News24 be restored so that audiences in different time zones can contribute via social media in equal measure.
Featured topics for discussion. Over the relevant time period, were a suitably broad range of subjects canvassed on the program, such as would encourage a desirable diversity of perspectives and reflect the varied interests and experiences of the Australian community?
In addressing this question and most of the others posed in the Terms of Reference it is necessary to understand the process adopted by the Q&A production team to determine each program’s content. Evident in that approach is that, unlike most other discussion and current affairs programs, Q&A’s outcomes are not driven by the selection of topics.
The content of a Q&A program is triggered primarily by the make-up of the panel. It is the identity of the panelists that informs to a substantial degree the questions submitted by the public. Yes, topicality of issues also plays a part but in our view it is the identity of the panelists and the questions their presence invites that defines each program.
Clearly for the program’s producers the availability of outstanding and/or visiting panellists like, for example, Greek singer and politician Nana Mouskouri, Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, science superstar Neil deGrass Tyson or Dr. Cornel West the African American scholar and poet will determine most topics discussed on those particular episodes of Q&A.
Politicians, comedians and journalists are usually expected to be “allrounders”, ready and able to discuss a broader range of topics, although Peter Greste, the recently imprisoned Al Jazeera correspondent was enlisted specifically to talk about his experience with justice and terrorism in the Middle East.
Q&A Review Final Report It is true that once the panel has been locked in and promoted as early as the previous Monday night Q&A publishes an on-line ‘prompt’ to its national audience, suggesting the sort of questions that might be appropriate for this particular panel or one particular guest, such as feminist icon Germaine Greer or the Head of the Australian Council of Social Service, Cassandra Goldie.
But the program-makers’ suggestions remain simply that - suggestions.
The fact is many questions submitted and eventually selected for Q&A do not conform to the “prompts” at all. Sometimes a topic that is in the news headlines of that week – which we witnessed with the coal seam gas furor around Gunnedah – did not even spark a question for the program, until a fortnight after the event hit the newspapers.
According to the Q&A producers, audiences will often take a little while to “cotton on to” an issue that professionals in the news business believe is a certainty to be raised immediately.
Looking through the 23 episodes we noticed that overseas guests are often excused from answering a question that focused on a specific Australian political topic. For example, American anti-poverty campaigner, Linda Tirado and Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on separate occasions avoided questions about indigenous Australians and other topics, musician and film-maker Michael Franti had no comments about higher education reform or so-called “black armband” history, while “mortician to the stars”, Caitlin Doughty, wasn’t brought into discussion on a total of five separate questions.
We have emphasised this point because, in our view, the term “featured topics for discussion” does not really have application to most Q&A programs.
Topics are not chosen but rather they emerge as a consequence of the questions accepted for broadcast. We prefer, therefore, to deal more fully with the matters raised in this term of reference in Section 5, Questions.
The exception to the general rule that panelists and questions define the program rather than topics is the category of Special Programs.
There were six Special Programs in the first six months of 2015. Five of those were defined by a clear, if broad, topic8.
Of those five programs four were prompted by topicality of issues, events or anniversaries9 and one appeared to be a discretionary choice made by the Q&A producers10.
We believe the selection of topics for Special programs was appropriate.
The Special not defined by a topic was the Sydney Writers Festival program of May 18.
Domestic Violence February 23, Budget May 25, Magna Carta June 15 and Gay Rights June 18.
Feminism March 9.
Was the composition of the panels such that over the course of the period assessed, Q&A met its obligations under Section 4 (particularly including the obligation to present a diversity of perspectives over time as outlined in standard 4.2, and to not unduly favour one perspective over another as outlined in standard 4.5)? In your view, does the method currently used to identify panelists work well, or do you believe there might be ways to improve selection processes?
It is difficult to overstate the importance of panel selection. As indicated previously this is where the genesis of each episode occurs. It is the identity of the panelists that largely drives the nature of the questions asked and topics discussed, not the other way round.
Finding capable panelists is not easy. Many candidates might qualify on grounds of intellect, experience and clarity of opinion. But even those attributes do not guarantee his/her ability to function effectively beneath bright lights, in front of a live studio audience and surrounded by combative and articulate protagonists.
Panelists have to be able to perform in the most difficult of environments. Even seasoned politicians, blooded in the parliamentary arena of Question Time, cannot be assumed to have what it takes to be an effective contributor to Q&A.
It’s also high risk for the panelists. They have no advance notice of the questions to be asked of them; they could face the most unexpected and confronting interrogation from the audience, moderator and other panelists.
It’s not surprising that many possible candidates are unwilling to entertain the idea of joining a panel.
Q&A Review Final Report We understand the business community in particular is reluctant to appear, judging the risks far outweigh any possible benefits. While acknowledging this reluctance, we strongly believe that Q&A should renew its campaign to enlist key panellists from the business sector. The absence of leading businessmen and women leaves a significant hole in Q&A’s landscape.
Against that background it is apparent that the producers of Q&A achieve an excellent hit rate in assembling each week the varied talent essential to the program’s ability to inform and entertain. The evidence of their success lies in the very strong viewing audience that tunes in each week.
But we have identified some areas where we believe Q&A could improve its performance. Two of those, gender balance and location, are part of our key recommendations and relate to more than just panel selection.
Other conclusions are specific to this process.
In Question 3: Moderation of Discussions, we deal more fully with the intensity of the focus on politics in the Q&A programs we reviewed.
But it is a significant issue also in the composition of panels where that intensity was reflected in the number of political representatives present on the panels. Across all 23 programs we reviewed, current or former political representatives comprised 42% of all panelists. Current federal politicians comprised 35%.
So, greater than one third of all Q&A panelists were current members of the Federal Parliament.
The Government had the strongest presence with 19 current representatives (it would have been 20 but for the late withdrawal of invited Coalition representatives from the June 29 program). This includes one program where the Treasurer, Joe Hockey appeared solo11.
The ALP had 17 representatives, the Greens one, and Independents/Others had three.
We believe the representation of the Government and Opposition was well balanced. The fact that there were more Coalition representatives than ALP does not in our view constitute a breach of standard 4.5, particularly as two Coalition representatives appeared in Special Programs12 where politics was not the primary focus.
But we do question the low level of representation from Independents/Others and, in particular, the Greens. Three of the four representatives of these two groups appeared in the first program13, which means that throughout the remaining 22 programs reviewed, only once14 did an Independent or Greens politician take part in the discussions on federal political issues.
May 25 (Budget Special) Julie Bishop (March 9, Feminism Special) and Bronwyn Bishop (June 15, Magna Carta Special).
February 2, all politician panel including Larissa Waters (Greens) and John Madigan and Jacqui Lambie (Independents) May 11, Clive Palmer (PUP).
Q&A Review Final Report The lack of Greens representation is particularly difficult to understand.
While they occupy only 5% of the total seats in the Senate and House of Representatives their influence, particularly in the Senate, far outweighs that. The level of their public support is acknowledged by Q&A’s audience segmentation. Greens supporters regularly made up around 14% of a Q&A audience. It is difficult to understand why that recognition was not reflected with a stronger presence on the panels.
Recommendation #1 A greater level representation of politicians from the Greens and Independent/Others parties should be present on panels.
Outside of party political lines the other test that could be applied to determine whether the panel selection met its obligations under standards 4.2 and 4.5 is to measure panel make up on a Progressive/Conservative axis.
We approached this with considerable caution. First it required us to define those labels and then to make a judgment, which inevitably involved a degree of subjectivity, on which panelists fit into which category, Progressive or Conservative?
For this exercise we used broad definitions that identified Progressives as being advocates of social reform, favouring among other policies more rights for women and minorities and redistribution of wealth. For Conservatives we adopted a definition of greater emphasis on traditional values, favouring among other policies free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.
We acknowledge that most people do not fit comfortably into a single category, however broadly defined. But we still believe the exercise has validity.
We adopted a protocol of labeling panelists only where we believed a fit was clearly apparent. If we had doubts about the leaning of an individual panelist we made no attempt to align him/her to a particular category.
Of the 113 panelists, we decided only 75 justified a Progressive or Conservative label. The 75 panelists were split 40 Progressive to 35 Conservative.
Given our methodology can be relied on for only a broad finding we believe this is a reasonable balance of Progressive and Conservative panelists and is consistent with the obligations under standards 4.2 and 4.5.
Q&A Review Final Report In one particular segment of the panelists –overseas guests – we did find a strong tendency to invite Progressive-leaning visitors on to Q&A. Of the 19 overseas panelists15 we categorised 11 as Progressives and none as Conservatives. Eight panelists were non-aligned.
Given that the panels overall were reasonably balanced this means, presumably, that a greater number of Australian Conservatives were invited on the program so as to maintain an appropriate diversity of views.
Recommendation #2 Q&A should achieve a greater diversity of perspectives among its overseas guests by inviting on to panels a greater number of Conservative leaning visitors.