Government adds its own review to two others on Q&A

ABC managing director Mark Scott said that the ABC was ‘on the side of Australia’. AAP/Alan Porritt

The government has ordered its own inquiry and Tony Abbott has declared “heads should roll” as the row over Q&A escalated after the program was rebroadcast.

The inquiry is being done by the Department of Communications and will be completed by Tuesday. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it would examine of “what happened, who knew what, where and when”.

Abbott told reporters that Wednesday’s replaying of the program was “utterly incomprehensible”.

In the program, Zaky Mallah, who was acquitted in 2005 of terrorism but admitted to threatening Commonwealth officials, asked a question and then, after an attack from government frontbencher Steve Ciobo, said “the Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him”.

Abbott said the ABC had admitted a gross error of judgement over Mallah’s appearance and then compounded “that terrible mistake” by the rebroadcast.

“Now frankly heads should roll over this,” Abbott said, adding that he had had “a good discussion” with Turnbull.

“We are not satisfied with an internal ABC inquiry because so often we’ve seen virtual whitewashes when that sort of thing happens. There is going to be an urgent government inquiry with recommendations,” Abbott said.

Asked on the ABC’s 7.30 whether he agreed with Abbott’s statement that heads needed to roll, Turnbull said: “I will decide which metaphors need to be made. I said today this was a grave error of judgement. The management has to take responsibility for it and there should be consequences. I don’t want to take it any further than that”.

Delivering the annual Corporate Public Affairs Oration on Thursday night, ABC managing director Mark Scott said some ABC staff, past and present, argued that to make any concession in the face of criticism was to buckle. He disagreed. “It is not weakness to say you made the wrong call.”

Noting the previous media coverage of Mallah, including by News Corp, Scott said he could see circumstances where a question asked by this man could have been broadcast, just as other controversial figures had asked questions before, such a Julian Assange.

But “the risks and uncertainties of having him in a live programming environment weren’t adequately considered before the decision was made to accept his application to be in the studio audience,” Scott said. Things needed to have been thought through carefully and referred up internally.

Scott said the ABC was currently reviewing the decision-making processes around Q&A in light of this experience. Also, it had been previously determined that Q&A would form part of this year’s series of independent editorial reviews – this would be done by an outsider and would look across a range of episodes with findings released later in the year.

“The ABC will co-operate with the government’s snap inquiry, which is to report back next Tuesday,” Scott said.

Scott had a go at the fierce attacks that have come from News Corp and replied to Abbott’s asking whose side the ABC was on.

Scott said the ABC went through media firestorms from time to time.

“But even for the ABC, things seemed to have been taken to a new level when on Wednesday we scored four covers on one day in the News Limited tabloids, complete with photoshopped ABC flags being waved by jihadi protestors. Not all parties to the conversation have seemed vested in pursuing a rational discourse.”

Scott recalled that it was not the first time politicians had posed the question of whose side the ABC was on. “Menzies, Hawke, Neville Wran – they all asked it in their own inimitable ways.”

The ABC was “on the side of Australia”, Scott said. It was an independent public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. “A state broadcaster is the communications arm of the government … I hope no one seriously wants the ABC to be a state broadcaster”.

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