Under wraps with my annual winter cold much of this week, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the Q&A/Zaky Mallah affair. I’ve read the angry columns and editorials, heard politicians declare their deep disappointment with the ABC, and most recently, former ABC managers such as Ian McGarrity have been giving their view on the merits or otherwise of Mallah’s appearance.
One studio member from the night in question was quoted complaining that:
… a potentially irrational man was loose and the ABC allowed that to occur without giving me a choice to absent myself.
I won’t engage here with all of the criticisms and condemnations made of Mark Scott, or Tony Jones, or Peter McEvoy, many of them rooted in partisan hatred of the ABC and all it stands for. Errors of process and editorial oversight were clearly made to enable an extreme religionist who jokes about “gangbanging” female journalists to come on live TV and say something stupid to an elected member of parliament.
Those mistakes were acknowledged by the ABC, and one assumes that appropriate lessons are being learned. Such errors happen, though, in all media organisations from time to time. Other media outlets, including The Australian, have worked with Mallah (and paid him).
These appearances, it’s true, have usually been pre-recorded or subject to editing, as opposed to Q&A’s live transmission. But it is precisely the capacity for unpredictability and unscripted spontaneity that gives a format such as Q&A much of its appeal.
In a world of professionalised political communication, Q&A is a rare media space where ministerial spin doctors are necessarily left at the studio door. Expert panels often include people other than career politicians, who are encouraged to speak their minds rather than tow a party line.
Audiences are largely self-selecting individuals who care about politics and public affairs enough to give up their Monday evening and join 100 of their fellow citizens for an hour of live debate. I’ve done it myself, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. On that occasion, American movie actor James Cromwell was on the panel, and some of his comments were very refreshing by comparison with the scripted messaging of the pollies sitting alongside.
But that kind of “liveness” carries risks. Regarding Zaky Mallah, it might be agreed that the benefits to the producers of being seen to be inclusive even towards the most extreme Islamist viewpoints in Australia – something we’re all asked to do to varying degrees, in the name of conciliation and coexistence – were outweighed by the costs of enraging the anti-public service media lobby.
Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the show, I suggested that, for all Mallah’s views are offensive to reasonable people everywhere, and certainly to me, hiding them away or censoring them won’t help win the battle of ideas. Better out than in, one might say, where we can see what we’re up against. And where better to see and hear it than on live national TV?
Australia’s is a vibrant, noisy democracy, and its political culture can be rowdy and unruly, just like the Q&A audience on occasion. Sometimes, the balance between free expression and public offence is delicate. Sometimes that line gets crossed, and live TV is of course especially vulnerable to grandstanding by ideologues and narcissists. But we should always err on the side of caution before calling for “heads to roll” because someone says something in the media we don’t like or agree with. Leave that approach to the Islamic State boys.
That said, there are two big issues arising from the Mallah affair, it seems to me, which are related, and are not going to go away in the short-to-medium term.
One is that of the ABC’s alleged “bias”, as exemplified by the inclusion of a radical Islamist on Q&A. This argument has long been a staple of the privately owned media, and News Corp titles in particular, whose columnists and pundits characterise the ABC’s journalistic culture as “left-of-centre”, or “liberal”, or even worse, “lefty liberal”.
If there is a bias at the ABC, it’s not to the left in any sense that I recognise. The Killing Season, just completed, was an evisceration of the ALP’s incompetence and cowardice over six years and two prime ministerial spills.
Did the ABC give the ALP an easy ride between 2007 and 2013? In this context, I think the boycott of Q&A by Janet Albrechtsen and others is self-defeating. I for one want to hear her on the ABC, and agree totally that the panel needs a full range of opinions on every issue it discusses.
The more ideological a political actor is, the more he or she perceives public service media to be biased against them. This is true of both left and right on the spectrum. It’s true of the Greens, and the trots, and Rise Up Australia, and Islamists like Mallah. It’s true of the BBC in the UK, accused of bias by the Scottish nationalists because they lost their referendum, and of bias by the unionists who thought the SNP got off too lightly on policy scrutiny.
What the ABC can be guilty of, for sure, is a bias towards cosy consensus, inclusive reasonableness, social democratic values of the type that drove its founding and ethos, and which are not in themselves “left” but which have defined Australia for much of the past century.
The ABC is biased towards a view of one nation, albeit an increasingly multicultural nation, engaged in rational debate for the benefit of the society as a whole. On that Monday in Sydney, Q&A’s producers deemed that vision to include Mallah.
And here is the second big issue – how does a liberal media culture committed to pluralism engage with and include representatives of Islamic fundamentalist ideology in a public domain which they openly despise and would close down if they could?
How does the ABC in particular, charged with representing the diversity of all Australians, manage this intensifying clash of cultures, enabling moderate Muslims as a whole to feel included in the national debate, while signalling clearly its intolerance of someone like Mallah’s extremism?