News National How a war on current affairs split the Coalition

How a war on current affairs split the Coalition

AAP, Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce
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Make no mistake about it, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has launched a jihad on the ABC panel program Q&A.

The Monday night show is a “lefty lynch mob” as far as he’s concerned and he’s not going to take it anymore.

The latest dramatic manifestation of this belligerence is the pulling of Nationals’ Deputy Leader Barnaby Joyce from the program and the banning of all government frontbenchers from appearing until a review is completed.

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As late as Sunday morning, Mr Joyce was looking forward to his appearance.

“It will be interesting,” he told another ABC show, Insiders. He even said he thought the producers had learned their lesson.

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His Prime Minister had an entirely different view. The Abbott office released a terse one-line statement: “Given the ABC is undertaking an inquiry into Q&A, it isn’t appropriate for the Minister to appear tonight.”

That line would send shudders through the producers’ ranks because it signals no ministers will be appearing while tabloid television mega-star Ray Martin assesses every show that’s gone to air this year.

They’ve tried this before

Meet the Press also drew the wrath of a conservative PM.

Bullying current affairs shows is nothing new. It’s a well-practised device to cower journalists.

After the 2004 federal election, Prime Minister John Howard’s office slapped a ban on ministers appearing on Network Ten’s Sunday morning show Meet The Press. The ban lasted till the end of the year. It was payback for perceived biased reporting of the election campaign.

An independent audit of the Canberra Bureau’s nightly reports – carried out at the insistence of the PM’s press office – found no such bias. In fact, two reports were judged to tilt the Liberals’ way.

Then Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Mark Vaile ignored the ban. His appearance helped neutralise the damage the Howard office was trying to inflict on the show’s credibility.

It seems his latter-day colleague Barnaby Joyce is not in their league.

What happens next?

Ray Martin would know that controversy is the key to success on a current affairs show.

Three months would be a reasonable time to allow Ray Martin and his sidekick Shaun Brown, formerly an SBS supremo, to do their cutting and dicing.

That could be problematic for regular panellist Malcolm Turnbull, who is due to front the “lynch mob” next week.

The Communications Minister is keeping his powder dry. Will he defy his Prime Minister or won’t he? If he does, will it precipitate an even bigger crisis for the struggling Liberal leader? (see the latest opinion polls.)

Whatever you think about Q&A and its handling of convicted terror suspect Zaky Mallah, the PM’s reaction is completely over the top.

It will be fascinating to see what Ray Martin makes of it all. Nobody would know better that generating controversy by whatever means is the key to a successful current affairs show.

The context for these shows is, of course, our robust democracy. Ever heard of free speech?

Sure, the producers went for the shock value of the Mallah appearance, but what happened? He asked a question, was put in his box by a Liberal frontbencher and came back clumsily. Electrifying TV even if for a couple of minutes. And we’re still talking about it.

Ray Martin would have killed for such a result back in his A Current Affair days.

Paul Bongiorno hosted Meet the Press at the time of the Howard-ordered boycott. He worked on the show from 1996 to 2013.

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