Friday, February 15, 2013

Take it as a Comment

What is the purpose of a public debate if it is not to expose the audience to different perspectives on the same issue, and to encourage them to consider their own opinion from different angles? The ABC’s QandA exists for that purpose, and a noble purpose it is.

The added layer that supports the success of QandA is Twitter. Broadcast live, QandA includes tweets from television audience members, displayed on screen, allowing QandA to boast of it’s panel of experts, politicians and celebrities, the studio audience, and the television audience, all with the ability to influence the show in real time. In fact, tweeters who have a tweet displayed on screen during the show are heroes for considerably longer than the 15 seconds or so that the tweet is on the screen. They can even advertise their success with a range of QandA T-Shirts. Not just a television show for political wonks, QandA is a multi-platform cultural landmark.

What about the panellists who appear on programmes like QandA? Are they there to help viewers to expand their minds and raise the level of debate around the water cooler in the office tomorrow? Of course not. With the exception of a few pop stars and comedians who should never have been anywhere closer to the QandA panel than the audience seats, QandA panellists have political and social agendas. They are there to discuss their subjects, represent their cause and neutralise any opposing views, regardless of the carefully selected and worded questions asked by the audience members.

In a live television environment where instant feedback is encouraged and rewarded, it’s inevitable that a range of responses will be received. Some personalities are always going to attract an audience and polarise it; others are less sensational.

Why is anyone surprised then, when a guest from the conservative group, href="">The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) displays conservative views, as James Paterson did on this week’s QandA, and receives a barrage of negative response?

Writing for right wing magazine The Spectator, James Paterson isn't surprised. He revels in it, responding with glee at the number of “abusive tweets from engaged lefties” he receives. For James, it’s a matter of pride that he’s been able to stir up a certain level of consternation, annoy specific tweeters into responding, and provoke groans of despair from the studio audience. He writes:

We move on to the mining tax, and a self-described lifetime Labor voter complains to Chris Evans that the Gillard government hasn't hit the mining industry hard enough, to the delight of the studio audience. In his answer, Evans suggests that the applause is a good indication of changing community sentiment and perhaps the government should look at reforming the tax to collect more revenue. I can't resist the opportunity, and point out that if the ALP really thinks a QandA audience is a representative sample of the Australian community, no wonder they are in such bad shape. It wins me no friends in the audience, who loudly groan. But at least Sinclair Davidson at the excellent blog Catallaxy Files appreciates it - he writes that it was my best comment all night, and Andrew Bolt agrees on his blog.
Note Mr Paterson’s mocking tone when considering that the QandA audience might be representative of the Australian community. I’m pretty sure that it would be impossible for the Australian community to be represented accurately by an audience of a couple of hundred people, but I do know that the political self-identification of the audience members for this week’s QandA programme was ALP 36%, Coalition 41% and Greens 14% - with 9% in the Undecided/Secretive/Confused bucket. To my amateur eye, that does look a bit skewed towards the left, yet it’s not a whitewash.

Even if all of the Greens support Labor, and the entire noncommittal 9% favoured the right, that would put the audience at even-stevens. So those groans that Mr Paterson heard from time to time during the programme were probably less than half the audience. Whether he likes it or not, the IPA, the Coalition, the right in general is rarely a minority. Playing underdog at the mercy of the Big Bad ABC simply doesn’t make sense.

Another groan was heard when host Tony Jones announced that next week’s programme will include a guest from the Centre for Public Christianity.

“It's as if having a Christian on the ABC is something to be outraged about.” A groan does not signify outrage, Mr Paterson. Even a loud groan by half the people in a room cannot be considered a sign of horror or indignation. It’s a groan, an involuntary noise that expresses derision, disdain, or disappointment. For a communications director, the choice of words veers towards hyperbole...and yes, I can pronounce it too.
Pedantry aside, it’s absurd to think that the ABC or its audience has an issue with putting Christians on air. Songs of Praise has been on air since Adam was a boy, and Compass, with Geraldine Doogue is as old as Methuselah. Moreover, the ABC has been responsible for such brilliant television as Brides of Christ and The Abbey.

Mr Paterson seens particularly unhappy – apparently on behalf of the regular QandA audience – at QandA’s regular coverage of political process stories rather than issues. This surprised me, yet  it illuminates part of the reason why Mr Paterson and his IPA are so far away from reality: the QandA audience is genuinely interested in process stories, particularly when they are related to how the Leader of the Opposition may act if he is elected Prime Minister in September. I believe Tony Abbott's inability to handle the media is a major election issue all by itself. Mr Paterson disagrees:

“I can't think of a less important topic to discuss than the Opposition Leader's media appearance schedule and the panellists' theories of what sort of media management tactics his team are running, so I say so. Of course, Corrine Grant believes this is a deadly serious matter of national concern. And nobody mentions the failure of every Gillard government minister bar Anthony Albanese to appear on The Bolt Report on Ten.”
Anyway, what else is there to discuss? The only Coalition policies we know about are the ones that are leaked.
Corrine Grant understands a helluva lot more about media than Mr Paterson does. Australians – even those on the right – might have a problem with a Prime Minister who goes out of his way to avoid talking to the media. That Tony Abbott has not appeared on QandA in a while is entirely Tony Abbott’s decision – just as choosing to not appear on The Bolt Report is the choice of many ALP figures.

It should probably be noted here that except for a couple of episodes, The Bolt Report rates last in its timeslots: in order to maintain an audience in the mid 200,000s, Channel Ten screens the programme twice on Sundays.

QandA is watched by around three times as many people as The Bolt Report, and frankly, Mr Bolt has such a tainted reputation that I’d hesitate to recommend that any politican of any side appear on his show.

The biggest question of all for Mr Paterson is this: Did he kick any goals for his team? Did he change any minds, win any votes for the coalition or attract any new members for the IPA? He speaks of having personal key performance indicators for his QandA appearances. He isn’t satisfied unless he’s getting hostile tweets, particularly from Marieke Hardy, although I’m sure there are others whose antagonism he values as much.

And that’s pretty damned childish. James Paterson is on QandA to do a job for his employer, to promote his organisation and their values. Pissing off your opponents is no reason to be proud - unless you’re trying to cause a riot at nap time by stirring up the other three year olds into making a noise.

I’m pleased for him that he finds satisfaction and fun in such a pointless activity. We all need to enjoy our work.

Meanwhile, if Mr Paterson is tempted to respond to this post, he's welcome to do that. My interest has never been in provoking a response from the right.

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