Q&A affair has become theatre of the absurd

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Has Q&A put some spell of madness over the government and their media mates?

A straightforward case of the public broadcaster making a mistake (in my view), acknowledging it and getting a blast from critics has turned into a Coalition and News Corp feeding frenzy that is nothing short of absurd.

In the latest developments on Tuesday:

  • Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said the government leadership team decided before parliament rose to boycott Q&A. This group includes Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who was, however, surprised and angry when Tony Abbott told him on Sunday he could not appear on Monday’s program. Joyce was present at the meeting; Truss said that “maybe he hadn’t interpreted the decision the way others had”. Joyce, now not commenting, has been made to look bad by both Abbott and his own party leader.

  • Neither Malcolm Turnbull’s office nor Abbott’s office could or would say whether Turnbull will be a panellist, as scheduled, next week.

  • Abbott refused to answer questions on Turnbull’s appearance or non-appearance, declaring that “what I’m not going to do is give further advertisement to a program which was, frankly, right over the top”.

Could Abbott have been oblivious to the irony? He and the government – together with News Corp – have been giving massive publicity to the program. They are all going “over the top”. This is an exercise in obsessive behaviour and attempted bullying.

News Corp is driven by ideological and commercial considerations.

Abbott is driven by – what exactly? Deep tribalism: the belief that the ABC is “them” – defined by the Prime Minister’s Office as anyone who is not “us”. A desire to talk up national security on every occasion. A wish to play to those in the backbench and the conservative base who see the ABC as an enemy.

But surely even Abbott sees the ridiculousness of the situation into which he has put himself and the government.

The ABC is on the whole a very respected institution. There is little broad political gain in taking a battering ram to it, although that racks up brownie points with News Corp and some in the Liberal right.

An Essential poll, published on Tuesday, found most people either thought the ABC was not biased to the left or the right (36%) or didn’t have an opinion (40%); 22% believed it was biased to the left and 3% to the right. People’s perceptions are correlated with how they vote. This poll comes after sustained pillorying.

Monday’s Q&A had no government representative after Joyce pulled out. Abbott might have hoped his friend Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, would be a helpful voice. But Sheridan roundly criticised the ban and also the government’s legislation, which Labor supported, that will stifle criticisms from professionals such as doctors working on Nauru and Manus Island.

Abbott is now on sticky fly paper with the ban. If he retreats, it’s embarrassing. If he persists, ministers will be unhappy and the government will stay unrepresented on the program. Turnbull’s position must be clarified soon, unless he is willing to tolerate for days an intolerable personal situation.

Asked how long ministers would not be appearing Truss said, “well, essentially we’re expecting the ABC to demonstrate that it’s learnt from this error of judgement, and that the program will be better run in the future”. Balance was needed in audience and panels and the subject matter should “not essentially be catering to one sector of the audience”.

Obviously the ABC is in a special position in relation to “balance”, because it is the public, taxpayer-funded broadcaster. Privately owned media outlets have the right to be “unbalanced”. But it would be heartening to hear leading figures in the government, just once in a while, speak as though “balance” was a journalistic virtue to be pursued more widely.

Abbott is now impatient for the review of Q&A that the ABC has commissioned from journalist Ray Martin and former SBS managing director Shaun Brown. He linked the quashing of Joyce’s appearance to the inquiry being underway.

The review will take quite a while to be finished. If Abbott lifted the ban for Turnbull he would not have the hook of a completed review – so how would he square this with his decision on Joyce? If he insisted Turnbull not appear, this would further worsen relations between them.

On Tuesday, Martin described Abbott’s ban as silly, and observed: “It’s clearly a political issue at the moment in terms of terror. I think we’ve already started looking towards the next election.”

Martin also defended Q&A host Tony Jones. “I suspect that Tony Jones was just as tough on the Labor government as he has been on the Coalition.”

Needless to say, Martin’s comments – ahead of the review – just give more fodder to critics of the ABC.

But like everything else, they help ensure Q&A doesn’t really need promos anymore.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, here or on iTunes.

http://www.podbean.com/media/player/bs9dp-572d2aThe Conversation

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Commercial current affairs and the case of Cardinal Pell

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

An early finding of the ARC-funded research I and my QUT colleagues are doing on the Australian political media is the gradual withdrawal of free-to-air commercial TV from the current affairs space. If I may paraphrase an old Soviet joke – there’s as much current affairs in A Current Affair as there is truth in Pravda. Which is to say, not very much.

The reasons for this are clear. What we like to call “serious” current affairs – as opposed to the glorified product placement that comprises most of the program of that name on Channel Nine – rarely attracts the audience ratings that game shows, reality TV and other cheap and cheerful formats achieve.

In a hyper-competitive media marketplace, with more platforms and more choice for consumers than ever before, prime-time free-to-air is just too important to the shareholders’ bottom line to be given over to anything that won’t bring eyeballs to the screen.

This is a global trend. All over the world, commercial TV companies that used to make high-quality, high-impact current affairs shows such as the UK’s World In Action have abandoned the territory.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a dose of well-made reality TV as much as the next person, and can even see the point of the Kardashians. And by “quality” current affairs I don’t mean white middle-aged men in suits talking about interest rates – it can be about topics of undoubtedly human interest, dramatic and sensational, but hugely important to people’s everyday lives such as the epidemic of domestic violence, or corruption in FIFA.

Current affairs TV can and should address the personal and the private, the things that matter to us all. And there’s nothing wrong with making that material, along with the big picture issues of economic and politics, accessible to an audience not all of whom have uni degrees.

My point is that even this broad definition of current affairs is increasingly scarce in the free-to-air commercial landscape. We have the ABC, legally mandated to provide such content. And Sky News does an excellent job of providing real time news coverage of public affairs, although its audience is restricted to subscribers of Foxtel. And there are exceptions in the free-to-air space.

Andrew Bolt’s Sunday show on Channel Ten is an increasingly rare free-to-air political debate slot. And as long as you accept its provocatively controversialist style – which helps in the ratings competition, of course – it is very watchable.

And then there is 60 Minutes on Nine, which this week demonstrated what can still be done in the field of current affairs journalism by the commercial broadcasters. In 2002, Cardinal George Pell was interviewed by Richard Carlton on 60 Minutes about payments he had allegedly authorised to victims of paedophile priests, including the nephew of convicted abuser Gerald Ridsdale.

On YouTube, you can watch Pell obfuscate with cringe-inducing obviousness as the journalist pressed him on “the conspiracy of silence”. This was tough adversarial journalism of the very best kind, and very courageous for its time.

The most recent 60 Minutes update interviewed Peter Saunders, a Vatican-appointed commissioner who is investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Saunders condemned Cardinal Pell in the harshest terms, to the extent that Pell is reported to be consulting his lawyers. A bevy of Australian archbishops subsequently wrote an open letter defending Pell, so damaging was the item perceived to have been.

Now, like most stories of this kind, there is more than one side to it, and there can be no rush to judgement until Pell has had his say before the Royal Commission. But this item, when taken alongside the statements of abuse survivors who have already testified in Ballarat and elsewhere, and other evidence such as the minutes of a Church meeting where the need to move Ridsdale to another diocese was discussed, has performed a real service to the victims of paedophile priests – a public service.

Commercial television has a long and honourable history of fearless current affairs journalism, in Australia and overseas. 60 Minutes’ work on Pell exemplifies that tradition. Long may it continue.

The Conversation

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Mathias Cormann’s Economic Girlie Man – Write Your Own Stuff!!!

So Mathias Cormann is quoting ‘The Terminator,’ or is it from ‘Mad as Hell?’ You be the judge. Maybe he should try writing his own stuff!!!

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