View from The Hill

Q&A controversy plays into hands of ABC’s government critics

Zaky Mallah created a stir on Q&A. ABC

The ABC’s decision to allow a well-known, one-time terrorism suspect to ask a question on Q&A was a mistake that potentially weakens the broadcaster’s position against its many enemies in high places.

Permitting Zaky Mallah to appear, whether through lack of thought or in pursuit of controversy, was bad in principle and worse than foolish in practice. It has handed a gift to the ABC’s critics within the government and also in News Corp, who attack it on ideological grounds and for commercial reasons.

The reaction has been rapid and somewhat threatening. Tony Abbott told the Coalition parties meeting that “we all know Q&A is a lefty lynch mob”.

Abbott added: “we’ll be looking at this and bringing something back” after the parliamentary winter recess.

Abbott asked again the question he’s posed before to the ABC: “whose side are you on?”

Mallah was acquitted in 2005 of planning a terrorist attack in Sydney in 2003; he pleaded guilty to threatening to kill ASIO officers and served a jail term. He has spent time in Syria.

The ABC knew who Mallah was when he was allowed to join Monday’s audience for a program that canvassed the government’s proposed citizenship law.

Mallah was introduced to put his question as someone “who has faced the security agencies and the courts on these issues”. He described himself as “the first man in Australia to be charged with terrorism under the harsh Liberal Howard government” and asked: “what would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”

Mallah and panellist Steve Ciobo, parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister, got into a stoush. Ciobo said Mallah had been acquitted on a technicality and he would be pleased to be part of a government that said he was out of the country.

Mallah responded: “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” – a comment that compere Tony Jones described as “totally out of order”.

The ABC has admitted its “error in judgement” in allowing Mallah to join the audience and ask a question. Richard Finlayson, director of ABC television, said that “as has been the case in the past on Q&A, circumstances will happen that are not anticipated. The critical question is whether risks could have been managed and the right editorial judgements made in advance.”

Regardless of the “risk management” issue, Mallah should not have been there in the first place.

Some will say: what about freedom of speech? Mallah has the right to say what he likes within the law and, as Finlayson pointed out, has been interviewed by the media a number of times. But the right to freedom of speech does not translate into a right to be part of a high-profile national television program.

Apart from the inappropriateness issue, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull raised the question of physical security in allowing Mallah into the audience. Now the police are to be consulted in a review of Q&A that was already underway. Monday night has changed and charged the context of that review.

Turnbull rejected any suggestion the program should be axed. Rather, he said, Q&A “has an obligation to be balanced and to be objective and to ensure that its topics, its audience composition and so forth have that balance that’s required by law [of the ABC]”.

The nature of such a program means it is going to be difficult for it to be “balanced” on every occasion – except in a token sense of having a government and opposition MP always there. Heaven forbid, some panellists might come out with unexpected positions and answers unanticipated when a “balance” meter is used beforehand.

Even if “balance” seems possible, what does “objective” mean in this context? It’s a program of sharply different and contentious points of view – it is not the 7PM news. Objectivity or lack of it will often be in the eyes of beholders. And what is the criterion of “objectivity” being applied to? Hardly to what panellists say.

Obviously those producing the program should aim to get a spread of participants, opinions and topics. But once it comes under forensic examination after a controversial incident, that exercise takes on a different nature.

The Q&A affair will make it easier for the government to further bully the ABC – which it does by specific assaults and by a general snideness – over its political coverage.

The ABC’s strength and independence are vital in a mainstream media landscape that has become more narrow, partisan and feral. It breaks many stories; it still has an extensive reporting staff at home and abroad amid other outlets shrinking, with their coverages getting more patchy.

The public have faith in the ABC, as shown by this week’s Essential poll, which found the most trusted media were ABC TV news and current affairs (63%), SBS TV news and current affairs (61%) and ABC radio news and current affairs (58%).

A big and robust news organisation such as the ABC will often have to put its credibility – and the trust people have in it – on the line. With sections of the government very anxious to erode the trust it enjoys, the ABC has to be doubly careful not to capriciously risk the respect it has – and needs in a hostile political climate.