Last week Nine introduced us to The Verdict, the commercial networks’ answer to Q&A (carefully ignoring what the A in that show’s title stands for).
It is a panel show that discusses the same big issues – terrorism, free speech, the behaviour of politicians – as the ABC talkfest, yet by approaching its topics through populist angles it holds itself out as a more mainstream, down-to-earth talking heads show.
This week host Karl Stefanovic opened with an empty acknowledgment of the accusations of lost control in the first episode, promising to do better while simultaneously rejecting any suggestion he hadn’t refereed the rabble, nor that they’d misbehaved.
This is the people’s Q&A.
Schoolyard squabbling where the winner is the first to get a giggle when they descend to personal insults.
— #TheVerdict (@TheVerdict9) October 15, 2015
The people’s Q&A
Let’s set aside the questionable suggestion that the people’s Q&A is somehow the one on the privately-owned network, not the people’s network. If “greater Australia” somehow feels shunned by Auntie but embraced by The Footy Show, so be it. Besides, it doesn’t really matter who owns the debate, it’s more important who gets to speak and how it is run.
And therein lies the rub. It has been easy for punters and pundits to take pot shots at The Verdict all week essentially for having the temerity to give Mark Latham a microphone.
This overlooks the small fact that he has also been a guest on that other Q&A. The fact that that other Q&A has had some pretty risible guests of its own. And the fact that giving a voice to any lunatic isn’t inherently bad.
Ten give Andrew Bolt his own show as well as a semi-regular spot on The Project and no one is permanently damaged.
The damage and potential danger is incurred when that opportunity for giving voice to an opinion migrates to a soapbox from which to preach unchallenged.
When the host appears more desperate to stay on side with the biggest kid in the playground than to actually stand up to him while he bullies anyone trying to make a point.
Latham tried to stomp all over every member of that panel on the first night. Oddly, the only person he succeeded in squishing was Stefanovic. In fact, the only time he paid an iota of attention to Karl was when he asked Mark to repeat himself.
Sadly he did. Many times.
On Thursday night, Latham responded to the suggestion he wouldn’t be allowed to talk over guests by just bringing forward the personal slights. You defend Human Rights? Then you want to drown children. You’re offended by sexism? Then you need to do something more useful.
Familiarity breeds contempt
The panel of people traditionally charged with delivering a verdict is a jury. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. As the American comedian Norm Crosby famously said: “When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of 12 people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”
The Verdict is an example of mob rule. This is “wider Australia” having its say, but they are wider in name only. Average Australia would be a better term. Those lying within a short percentile range of middle Australians.
It is actually a narrow spectrum of viewpoints but it runs deep. Though not deep enough if the ratings from last week are any guide, with more people watching Family Feud – which probably provided a greater variety of points of view on questions as well.
The crucial thing in a jury trial, though, is that the jury aren’t the ones presenting the case. That role is given to the advocates, those who have trained for years, combining evidence and expertise to present an argument.
On The Verdict, the loudest voice gets the microphone – that’s almost always Latham – and it is less trial by jury and more rant over family dinner table, with Latham playing the role of the opinionated uncle your parents warn you not to engage with “or else he’ll just get riled up”.
The underlying premise of The Verdict seems to be that experts aren’t to be trusted, at least not as much as ‘normal Australians’.
In the age of social media everyone has an opinion and if you can’t explain a complex idea in terms anyone can understand in under 140 characters, that’s your problem, not theirs.
“Sandy you’ve got too much research and not enough common sense,” opined Latham at one point, dismissing facts as that annoying thing that get in the way of a good pot-stirring, but he was only towing the program line.
As the show began, Stefanovic literally introduced an expert in the first issue to be discussed, then said “but before we get to her, let’s ask Mark Latham”.
Sure we could establish some facts, Karl seemed to be saying, but instead, lets start the conversation by setting fire to the set. Then we’ll see what (or who) we can roast on it before we get to the first commercial break.
By episode two there was a formula to every segment. Let one informed person talk, then turn to Mark to pour petrol over them and the topic.
Therein lies the problem not just with The Verdict, but with Australian politics and media. We are indoctrinated to listen to sensational opinion ahead of ‘pointy headed’ experts who weigh up various points of view, or as Mark would have it: ‘sit around in groups bitching’.
Tall Poppy syndrome has morphed into Smart Poppy syndrome.
Welcome to The Verdict, Australia. We are guilty of deserving it.