TV

We’re Being Let Down By Shows Like ‘Q&A’ And ‘The Project’ And Their Hunger For Controversy

Q&A is the current affairs program we have, but not the one we deserve.

ABC

Last night Q&A set up a debate between One Nation senator, and noted climate change denialist, Malcolm Roberts and award-winning physicist Professor Brian Cox. It went as well as you could’ve have expected, with Cox wasting his time patiently explaining climate science while Roberts claimed climate change was a NASA-led conspiracy.

Earlier in the night, on The Project, Father Rod Bower from the Gosford Anglican Church squared off against a representative of the Party for Freedom, the group responsible for gatecrashing a church service while impersonating Muslims last week. Unsurprisingly the headlines read “Waleed takes anti-Muslim guest to task”, as if the show could have ended any other way.

Whether you like them or not, both Q&A and The Project play an important role in our national political discourse  but it’s moments like these that have many suggesting they’re simply manufacturing controversy. Just like the time the Pauline Hanson episode had us questioning whether anything was actually achieved.

But are these shows unnecessarily adversarial by their nature, or can they serve as the current affairs platforms we need during politically polarising times?

What’s Wrong With Q&A?

Everyone has a love/hate relationship with Q&A (or sometimes just a hate-hate relationship). Once described as “Jerry Springer for people with degrees”, the show lures us in with promises of critical and enlightened debate on the key issues of the week but within minutes we’re swearing and throwing heavy objects at the TV. Back in 2011, Clem Bastow argued that “the show’s engagement with the ‘audience’s’ questions is so limited — there’s definitely more ‘A’ than ‘Q'”.

The program is definitely at its best when it either ditches politicians entirely and builds a discussion around experts in a particular field, like science or the arts, or focuses on one politician and creates the space required for a genuine interrogation of the people who run the country.

Last night’s episode was an example of everything wrong with the program. Three politicians, including a One Nation Senator, up against a physicist and a mathematician. Why? What could this combination of panellists possibly have delivered other than confused shouting?

Earlier today the Executive Producer of Q&A held his own question and answer session on Facebook to answer queries viewers had about the show. Most of the questions related to last night’s episode and the value of putting One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts on the same platform as Brian Cox.

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The justification that Roberts was asked on because he’s an elected representative who needs to be “held to account” sounds good in theory, but doesn’t entirely stack up. In the past week and a half Roberts has been on the ABC’s Lateline, Insiders and now Q&A. The Nick Xenophon Team elected as many politicians as One Nation did, but their Senators haven’t received anywhere near the attention Roberts has. The Greens elected more than twice as many Senators as One Nation, but have received substantially less media coverage than Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts.

Even if the point of the episode was to ensure One Nation was “held to account”, it failed miserably. Of course Roberts wasn’t going to change his view on climate change during the course of the program. Nothing Cox pointed out to him in relation to the science of climate change was new information. He dug his heels in and repeated the same wild accusations of a conspiracy theory, because that’s his shtick and the ABC knows it. But maybe the point was to expose the flaws in his argument and dissuade potential One Nation voters from supporting the party? I wish it was that easy, but it seems unlikely that a robust episode of Q&A is going to mark the turning point when it comes to Pauline Hanson’s resurgence.

Q&A is better off admitting the real reason Roberts gets such a loud platform: it’s because he generates controversy and free publicity. It’s not too dissimilar to the tactic used by commercial TV networks on their morning show programs.

Their own write-up of the episode described it as “showdown” and broke down the blow-by-blow by comparing it to a boxing match. It’s clear that the show wasn’t about ‘holding power to account’ but about manufacturing a highly orchestrated piece of combative television. Is that really what a public current affairs program should be doing?

The Good And Bad Of The Project

The Project is a very different show to Q&A but it tries to fulfil the same noble goal: adding to the public debate on a range of contemporary social and political issues. Even if we don’t watch the show we’re all familiar with Waleed Aly’s hot takes. Even if you don’t always agree with him, it’s hard to deny that Aly is undoubtedly one of the most impressive media personalities in the country — not least because he’s a Muslim Australian from an Egyptian background who has succeeded in Australia’s notoriously white bread entertainment industry.

But it’s precisely because Aly and The Project have been so sharp at times that it feels so awkward and uncomfortable when they get the angle completely wrong. A recent example was Aly’s call to “Send forgiveness viral” in response to community outrage around Sonia Kruger’s ‘Muslim ban’ comments. While the call to arms was welcomed by some, Aly was criticised by many Muslim Australians for attempting to police their responses to outrageous bigotry.

Last night’s episode of The Project, like Q&A, seemed designed purely to provoke conflict and controversy, which is ironic given Aly’s earlier call to end the “cycle of outrage”.

What’s the point of getting a far-right nationalist, who helped organise a bad stunt at a church designed to provoke fear and generate hate, debate the priest of that church on TV? The story had run all day and it’s unlikely anyone who agreed with the logic behind the stunt, whatever the logic was, was going to change their minds after the segment. And you didn’t have to be genius to figure out that Aly was going to disagree with an anti-Islam nationalist. Again it seems the primary goal here was to generate controversy for the sake of it rather than explain, critique or engage in a way that added something to the public debate. 

The segment also featured Steve Price, who it appears has been completely rehabilitated in the eyes of the show’s producers and hosts. Price was previously criticised by Aly and co-host Carrie Bickmore for referring to Q&A panellist Van Badham as “hysterical” during a discussion on domestic violence. Despite coming under heavy pressure from The Project‘s hosts and the wider community, it looks like all his forgiven — despite the fact Price never actually apologised or admitted any wrongdoing.

As Alex McKinnon wrote at the time, “The unspoken strangeness… is that The Project regularly gives Price a platform, where he serves as the show’s go-to grumpy old conservative bloke to offset the rest of the panel’s shiny progressive leanings.” How seriously can we take the show’s moral stances on issues if they are willing to so easily forget controversial and offensive comments from a regular co-host?

We Deserve Better

I’m not a big fan of Q&A. In fact, I actually kind of hate it. People seem very surprised when I say that, after all I’m a politics and news junkie (or.. Junkee), how could I hate Australia’s flagship current affairs program? But the reason I don’t like it is because it doesn’t currently work as a current affairs show. It works as a kind of horrific combination of parliamentary Question Time and reality TV. We’re made to think it’s all genuine and off-the-cuff, but the battles, along with who is going to come off as the villain and the protagonist, have been pre-ordained.

Right now when Australia is at an incredibly tense point when it comes to race relations, and when the far-right is emboldened and resurgent, we need better than fake controversies drummed up by TV producers, especially when those producers are incredibly unlikely to be on the receiving end of racism themselves.

Both Q&A and The Project have a national impact that is far greater than their TV audiences. Imagine if that impact was more regularly harnessed to genuinely hold power to account and allow for real, constructive and nuanced debate, which both programs have demonstrated they can do, instead of satisfying a hunger for manufactured controversy as is becoming more common.