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«December 2015 Q&A Review Final Report Contents Introduction 3 Executive Summary 6 Questions #1 Topics 16 #2 Panel Composition 19 #3 Moderation of ...»

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Q&A Review Final Report We make no recommendations on these conclusions as we regard them as isolated lapses in judgement and not symptomatic of any systemic issue.

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Were panel discussions moderated in a way that ensured fair treatment was achieved, both in relation to the panelists present and the topic under discussion (with particular reference to standard 4.1)?

Although we have adopted the description “moderator” to describe the role of the host of Q&A it is apparent to us that the term does not fully cover the performance required of the program’s presenter.

Certainly the obligation to moderate the discussion so that participants (we would include questioners as well as panelists) and subject matter are treated fairly and with “due impartiality”28 is the overriding responsibility of the presenter. The greater part of this section addresses the discharge of that duty.

It is also important, we believe, to acknowledge that more is required of the Q&A host if the program is to continue to attract and engage a large viewing audience.

A live, prime time television discussion involving heavy hitters from politics and the commentariat as well as people of influence and standing from both here and overseas makes considerable demands on the host and requires journalism skills, and dare we say it, entertainment talent that should not be underestimated.

The host’s performance must be commanding, yet not overly intrusive, able to navigate and direct both serious discourse and witty byplay and be able to respond or contribute to the inevitable banter that is part of the program’s attraction.

Standard 4.1 of the ABC Editorial Policies states: Gather and present news and information with due impartiality

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From our observations politicians appearing on such programs can be overly assertive, interrupt at will, remonstrate with the moderator, and demand a constant right of reply. They are also skilled at avoiding direct answers and maintaining a pre-determined “on-message” performance regardless of what is put to them.

The host of Q&A has to ensure that in the face of such tactics the questions from the studio audience are properly answered avoiding confrontation where possible and maintaining the fluidity and lively tone that characterises the program.

The success of regular Q&A Coalition panelists like Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce is evidence of how politically valuable the program can be, for those who know how to engage in debate, challenge the moderator or are agile enough to handle any unexpected question thrown at them.

Q&A Review Final ReportPolitical Focus

It is our assumption that the mission of Q&A is to a large degree inspired by the long running BBC program Question Time broadcast in the UK. Its raison d’etre is “to give people an opportunity to scrutinise directly senior politicians and others who exercise power and influence.”29 Q&A’s original mission statement (2008) reflected a similar objective: “It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from – everyone can have a go and take it up to our politicians and opinion makers.” It follows then that there is a deliberate and justifiable focus on politics in most Q&A programs. In the previous section on Panel selection we have detailed the allocation of places to current politicians. We now address the manner in which those politicians are treated.

We analysed this in two ways, assessing the number and type of questions put to the panelists by the moderator and the amount of speaking time panelists were allowed.

The first assessment was drawn from a careful viewing of the 23 programs. We identified two categories of panel management by the moderator.

First, we wanted to find out how audience questions were allocated to individual panelists by the moderator, and also how many times answers were volunteered by panelists without being asked any specific question by the moderator. We have labeled this category Primary.

The second category was when the moderator interrupted or followed up a panelist’s answer with further questions. This can take the form of a request for clarification, a challenge, or a related supplementary question. This is labeled Secondary.

Ric Bailey, Chief Advisor, Politics, BBC

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Instead, we used the program’s online transcripts to count the number of lines panelists took to give their answers or engage in discussion. We believe that is a suitable measure of a panelist’s air- time.

Across all 23 programs, including those specials that did not include any current politicians, political representatives received 45% of the speaking time available to panellists. Given the political focus of Q&A this is not surprising even though politicians comprised only 36% of panel positions (41 of 113 panelists).

Nor is it surprising that when the six specials30 were excluded, political representatives received 51% of speaking time although they comprised 42% of panel positions.

Of greater significance though is the dominance of Government representatives in both speaking time and the allocation of questions.

To avoid any distortion in our analysis of time given to, or taken by, politicians we have excluded the previously identified six specials as well as the program of June 29 that was subject to a Government boycott. All the remaining 16 programs featured representatives of Government and Opposition on the same program and, occasionally, representatives of other parties. The moderator for all 16 programs was Tony Jones.

February 23, Family Violence; March 9, Feminism; May 18, Sydney Writers’ Festival; May 25, Budget; June 15, Magna Carta; June 18, Gay Rights.

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On average a Government representative received 70% more speaking time than a representative of the Opposition (and 160% more than Greens and Others).

We should point out that receiving additional time is very much a mixed blessing for the Government of the day.

While it certainly provides greater opportunity to try and persuade the electorate of the efficacy of its administration, the extra time is much more likely to be a result of the Government representative being on the back foot, fending off challenging questions from the audience and moderator and responding to critical comments from other panelists.

We would maintain that it is this dynamic that generates an oftrepeated criticism of Q&A – that its relentless challenging of the Coalition Government is unfair.

To reach any conclusion on the validity of this criticism it is necessary to understand how the allocation of additional time comes about.

Q&A Review Final Report To that end we analysed the allocation of questions by the moderator using the Primary/Secondary methodology described above. We should point out that although we (and the viewers) attribute decisions on question allocation to the moderator, in reality the judgments are not always his or hers alone. The moderator receives regular suggestions and instructions via earpiece from the Executive Producer in the studio control room.

Looking only at the 16 programs where both Government and Opposition are represented, a clear picture emerges.

Average Q&A Allocation by Group (16 Programs)

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In all, the Government responds to twice as many questions as the Opposition. That this is due, in part, to the thrust and direction of the initial questions posed by the audience members is reflected in the Primary findings.

But the biggest difference occurs in the Secondary grouping where Government representatives are questioned by the moderator directly.

There are a number of reasons why the moderator is justified in stepping in to ask questions.

Greens and Others appeared in 2 of the 16 programs. The average Q&A’s relate only to the programs they appeared in.

Non Political panelists appeared in 15 of the 16 programs. The average Q&A’s relate only to the programs they appeared in.

Q&A Review Final Report

1. Perhaps the most important function of the moderator is to ensure that the question posed by an audience member is answered properly. That may require the question being put again to a panelist.

2. If an answer is unclear the moderator may seek further clarification.

3. If an answer is inconsistent with the panelist’s previous statements or the position of the party he/she represents then the moderator is justified in challenging it.

4. The answer of one political panelist may require the moderator, on grounds of fairness, to offer a right of reply to his opposite political panelist.

5. An answer may suggest a related supplementary question.

Whatever the justification, it is apparent that the moderator is much more likely to direct questions to and challenge answers from a Government representative than other panelists. That begs two


1. Is the more intense scrutiny of Government representatives justified?

2. Is the scrutiny during the review period in any way due to the Coalition being in Government as opposed to another Party?

Implicit in much of the current criticism of Q&A from certain quarters is that it is biased to the left and therefore treats the Coalition Government unfairly. That view was graphically put earlier this year by the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott: “…Q&A is a lefty lynch mob.” It is our view that there is only one way to test whether the Government scrutiny by Q&A is varied according to the party in power. Although not required by the Terms of Reference covering this review we decided that it was necessary to review Q&A programs broadcast during the previous Labor Government, in an identical way.

We identified the comparable period during the last Government’s term of office as being the first six months of 2012 (the same first 6 month period of the middle year of office). Of the 22 programs broadcast during this period nine were specials, single panelist or had no party political representation.

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Using the “line count” methodology the following results were obtained and are here represented against the 2015 outcomes.

Comparison of Speaking Time between 2012 and 201533

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The pattern of Government dominance of speaking time is evident in 2012 although not to the same degree as in 2015.

The most significant difference is the greater amount of speaking time allowed to the Coalition when it was in Opposition in 2012 compared to the time allowed the ALP Opposition in 2015.

Similarly we reviewed the 2012 programs using the Primary/Secondary methodology to assess and compare the moderator’s allocation of questions with 2015.

2015 findings are based on data from the 16 programs in which Government and Opposition representatives were matched against each other.

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Again the pattern of more questions being directed to Government representatives is evident in 2012, although not to the same degree as in 2015.

Allowing for a reasonable margin of error, the differences between 2012

and 2015 that may be considered of significance are:

1. The greater amount of speaking time taken by the Coalition in Opposition in 2012 compared to the ALP in Opposition in 2015 (22% compared to 18%).

2. The greater number of Primary questions put to the Coalition in Opposition in 2012 compared to the ALP in Opposition in 2015 (10 compared to 7.3).

3. The greater number of Secondary questions put to the Coalition in Opposition in 2012 compared to the ALP in Opposition in 2015 (7.3 to 5)

4. The greater number of Secondary questions put to the Coalition in Government in 2015 compared to the ALP in Government in 2012 (12.7 compared to 9.9).


Q&A Review Final Report The difference identified in 2. can be explained, at least in part, by a closer examination of the segments comprising Primary Q&As. In addition to the initial audience questions being allocated by the moderator this category also includes other answers provided by panelists even though they were not specifically invited to do so by the moderator.

In other words it captures occasions where panelists jump in to answer a question not directed to them (and where the moderator permits that to happen).

In 2012 the Coalition in Opposition jumped in on average 3 times per program while in 2015 the ALP in Opposition did so only once per program. This means the number of truly Primary questions put to the Opposition by the moderator was almost the same for 2012 and 2015 (7 in 2012 and 6 in 2015).

Furthermore the extra number of “unprompted” answers provided by the Opposition in 2012 goes some way to explaining the additional time taken by the Coalition representatives compared to the ALP Opposition in 2015 as identified in 1.

In any event it is our observation that, by and large, the Opposition panelists benefit from extra time and “unprompted” answers. Although not immune from challenging questions from the audience and moderator, such panelists are, on balance, more likely to be in attack mode, challenging and criticising the Government’s performance. In our view, any Opposition party should, and probably does, relish such a platform.

It also seems to us that, in comparing 2012 and 2015, it could be said the Coalition in Opposition was more effective in performing that role on Q&A than the current ALP Opposition. Certainly that is supported by the Coalition’s use of the opportunity in 2012 to jump into a discussion and give “unprompted” answers.

Q&A Review Final Report It is difficult to determine whether the difference identified in 3. is similarly beneficial to the Coalition.

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