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Managing the Mallah fallout: Q&A under scrutiny

AAP/Tracey Nearmy

There have been hints these last few days of a limited truce in the war of words and inquiries launched by the Coalition against the ABC’s Q&A.

An apparent readiness to move the program to the news and current affairs division from entertainment, and submission to further investigation of how Zaky Mallah made it into the studio audience in the first place, seem to have quietened the government critics – at least for now. This made a resumption of frontbench participation on the Q&A panel likely before too long.

What has been remarkable about all of this, though, is the degree of enmity, bordering on hatred, that has driven the episode from the beginning. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, some of his frontbenchers, and those in the media who have made this such a huge public scandal give the impression of being motivated by personal loathing for whatever it is they perceive the ABC to represent, and Q&A to exemplify.

Over and above the legitimate scrutiny of a large publicly funded organisation we’d expect to find in the broader political and media arena, there is the vitriolic rage against “lefties” and the like, onto which the Mallah episode has been like petrol thrown on a fire.

Such culture wars, as Jason Wilson discusses in The Guardian are not new to Australia, nor to other countries with similar tensions between public and private media sectors.

In the UK, where the phone-hacking scandal only temporarily slowed a long campaign by News Corp and its political allies against the BBC has produced, just this week, a cut of £750 million to its budget. This is the sum required for the BBC to take on the cost of free TV licences for seniors, as demanded by the Conservative government in its recent budget.

But the current argument between the ABC and this Coalition government has a bitter tone that I’ve never witnessed in comparable debates in the UK, even in the years when Margaret Thatcher’s more thuggish ministers would routinely refer to the BBC as the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation”.

The BBC is not perfect. It made a huge error in its treatment of the Jimmy Savile scandal. There have been several episodes of editorial misjudgement on a number of flagship news and current affairs programs over the years.

The most damaging for the BBC was the “dodgy dossier” episode in 2003 involving the flagship Radio Four breakfast news program and an accusation of prime ministerial lying about the war in Iraq. That led to the resignation of both the BBC’s director-general and chairman.

Heads certainly rolled on that occasion, Tony, reminding us that left-of-centre governments can be just as brutal with the public service broadcaster as any other kind.

By those standards, the Mallah affair has some way to go. But to prevent a comparable outcome at Ultimo, it would be wise for ABC managers to reflect on the lessons of the BBC’s recent troubled history. Defend your journalistic independence to the death, but don’t allow institutional hubris to prevent healthy self-criticism where it’s justified.

An inquiry is now underway at the ABC. It will look back at the production of 23 episodes of Q&A, including processes such as the selection of the studio audience, Tony Jones’ chairing of the program, and much more. It will, let’s hope, give some impartial, fact-based answers to the charges of Q&A bias, although that may be touching naivete on my part.

Some critics of the ABC have already suggested that the inquiry will be flawed because it is led by former public service broadcasting executive Shaun Brown and one-time ABC journalist Ray Martin. Whatever their findings, they will be challenged by those who see Q&A as a platform for “lefty lynch mobs”.

Most ABC viewers would reject that characterisation, and the broader suggestion of a conspiracy within the ABC to denigrate or undermine the right-wing of politics in Australia. That doesn’t mean the ABC never makes mistakes, such as those already conceded in the Mallah case. No journalistic organisation is free of error or editorial misjudgement, and it does the ABC absolutely no harm to acknowledge that.

The findings of the inquiry must be robust, therefore, and as critical as they need to be. Not to mollify the haters, but to strengthen the foundations of one of Australia’s most important – as well as esteemed – cultural institutions. In a climate of such political sensitivity, the ABC’s best strategy is transparency and openness.