The ABC’s Q&A program tried to contact two people who knew Zaky Mallah when he was being considered to ask a live-to-air question on the program, according to the Department of Communications’ report on the incident.
But when the attempt was unsuccessful the Q&A team relied – in determining he was not dangerous, would not be disruptive and was suitable for a question – on its previous experience with Mallah, the advice of another ABC journalist, a review of a recent television appearance and a review of his social media posts undertaken in August 2014.
The check did not include Mallah’s recent offensive tweets or YouTube videos.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday released a summary of the investigation, which was not asked to make recommendations or give opinions. Earlier this week the ABC board announced that the program’s executive producer Peter McEvoy had been given a formal warning. It said the Mallah appearance should have been referred to more senior management.
Turnbull has welcomed the disciplinary action and is not now proposing to take the matter further.
Mallah was previously found not guilty of two terrorist related charges but pleaded guilty to a charge related to threats to kill officers of ASIO or the Foreign Affairs department.
The report says Mallah was “well known” to the Q&A editorial management team. He had first registered for the audience in 2011, had attended as an audience member twice and had been booked for the audience three other times but cancelled. He twice asked to be a panellist but was not accepted. On one other occasion he was asked if he wished to attend in the audience but did not accept.
“Mr Mallah’s selection as a general audience member for the 22 June 2015 episode appears consistent with Q&A’s general practices, drawing on their database of registrations of interest,” the report summary says.
June 22 was the first time Mallah had been shortlisted to ask a question of his own construction and had the opportunity to do so during the broadcast. The program dealt with the government’s proposal to remove citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorism-related activities.
Mallah’s selection was “an editorial judgement made by the Q&A editorial management team” led by McEvoy. “We have been advised that this decision did not raise any issues of concern for the team in relation to the editorial policies of the ABC that they determined would require any referral beyond Mr McEvoy.”
The ABC subsequently admitted it had made an error of judgement in having him in the audience and asking a question.
The part of the departmental report dealing with security practices is not being made public. Turnbull raised the question of security in relation to having Mullah in the audience.
The report also dealt with the decision to rebroadcast the program, which infuriated the government.
The ABC told the investigation that only rarely might the ABC withdraw or edit a program before a repeat – if there were legal concerns or editorial content breaches.
In this case, standard practice was followed – with an advisory added referring to the acknowledgement of the error of judgement.
The ABC told the inquiry that the director of television, Richard Finlayson, in consultation with ABC managing director Mark Scott and head of editorial policy Alan Sunderland, considered whether there were legal concerns or editorial breaches which justified not repeating or editing the episode and subsequently made the judgement to include the advisory. They believed that the program had been seen and reported widely, “so not repeating it in full would have had in their view no effect”.
As of June 29, 962 complaints had been logged by the ABC about the program.