A review of ABC panel program Q&A has found former prime minister Tony Abbott’s criticism that the program is a “lefty lynch mob” is not substantiated, but warned that host Tony Jones should be careful not to “overreach” in his questioning.
The editorial review, commissioned by the ABC, was conducted by television journalist Ray Martin and former SBS managing director Shaun Brown.
“The most commonly expressed criticism is that the program lacks impartiality and maintains a left wing anti-Coalition bias,” the report said.
“We believe, after close analysis, this general impression is not substantiated.
“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 2012.”
Mr Martin told 774 ABC Melbourne: “I think [Mr Abbott] was a man under stress at the time, we didn’t find the lefty lynch mob that he talked about, we looked very closely at 23 programs, almost second by second.”
Q&A has experienced significant criticism this year, most notably for the decision to allow a man convicted of threatening to kill ASIO officers to question frontbencher Steve Ciobo on citizenship-stripping legislation.
Mr Abbott banned his MPs from appearing on the show for a number of weeks as a result.
There were also concerns about the use of Twitter comments being displayed on screen during the broadcast.
However Mr Martin said although the “Twitterati” was more left than the rest of the program, it was “not to a point where it really disturbed us”.
The review highlights times at which Jones may have overreached in questioning or interjected over the top of panellists, including Government frontbenchers Josh Frydenberg and Christopher Pyne.
But the authors suggest the “handful of examples” are not defining of Mr Jones’ contribution to the program.
“More often than not, his occasional interjects and asides are appropriate and effective, adding piquancy to the discussions without being disruptive or intrusive,” the report said.
MPs should be able to hold their own during questioning: review
The report suggests members of the Government who appear on the program should be able to hold their own under questioning from the audience.
“The persistent challenging of the Government of the day is not only inevitable, but also desirable,” the report said.
“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 report warns that even though it has not found the program to be at fault, that should not allow for complacency.
“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.”
‘Four men in suits and two women’
Mr Martin said the worst bias on the show was against women.
“When you look at the number of panellists who are on the program, usually five a week, 21 of the 23 programs we looked at had three men and two women on the panel, and then Tony Jones on the panel,” he said.
“Which was like four men in suits and ties and two women, not only was that an odd gender balance for 2015, also we found that the women, including people like Tanya Plibersek and Heather Ridout and other fairly outspoken and very capable and very intelligent women — once they got on the program they were asked less primary questions and less secondary questions than men.”
“The end result is the belief that women’s opinions are less important than men, which of course is wrong.”
He said the problem was exacerbated by the number of female politicians in the Liberal and National parties.
Filming location ‘undermines democracy in action claim’
Concerns over the number of episodes filmed at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney were also raised in the report, with the authors admitting the location “undermines the program’s claim to represent ‘democracy in action'”.
“Clearly if it’s going to be an Australian debate it must get out of Sydney and it must have other people rather than Sydney talent on the panel,” Mr Martin said.
“Melbourne does pretty well, but if you live in Adelaide, or Perth, Brisbane or Hobart, someone coming from overseas has got a greater chance of getting on the program than people from those states.
Mr Martin also said the panel occasionally needed younger guests, as there were not many representatives under 35.
The report has been welcomed by ABC chairman James Spigelman.
“It makes a number of recommendations designed to enhance Q&A‘s role as a home for important, national conversations,” Mr Spigelman said.
“Mr Brown and Mr Martin have made constructive points about the programs in relation to gender balance of the panel, diversity of perspectives, program principles and the desirability of filming in locations outside Sydney.
“This review will help the Q&A program build on its current high standing and performance.”
Mr Spigelman said Q&A would move from ABC Television to the broadcaster’s News Division in early 2016, and that News management would develop a detailed response to the report’s recommendations.