Watching Q&A when it was first broadcast in May 2008 reminded me of the day I discovered Wizz Fizz — from that time on, the prunes and muesli bars mum packed me for play lunch would never again cut the mustard.

“At last,” we collectively breathed, as our intellectual tastebuds exploded with joy, “a show in which we, the people, own the agenda.”

Suddenly political discourse became something the audience actually participated in, rather than passively observed. It was unpredictable and engaging and most importantly, we felt as though it was ours. Branded as “adventures in democracy”, this is exactly what the producers of Q&A would have us believe. The message here is clear: this is a place where the people control the agenda.

Since the inventions of the printing press and television camera, the news agenda has been controlled by editors and TV producers. In theory, this is a function of journalism, a profession in which judgments must be made as to what is newsworthy.  Unfortunately, as argued by former kitchen cabinet minister Lindsay Tanner who correctly asserts in his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, the entertainment value of a story has become the predominant measure of newsworthiness in contemporary journalism.

The ABC, the nation’s public broadcaster, should in theory be free from this disease. And that’s why we love her — because whenever the commercial media recklessly pollute the airwaves with misinformation and sensationalised claptrap, we can always run to Aunty, crawl under her shawl, stick our fingers in our ears and pretend it isn’t happening. It’s here that we feel safe, because we think dear old Aunty has our best interests at heart.

But she doesn’t.

Like all other mainstream media outlets, Aunty must entertain and it says so, right there in her charter. Admittedly, entertainment is stated as one objective among many, as it should be. But sadly she’s given it primacy and there’s no more conclusive proof of this than what happened on last week’s Q&A.

Under normal circumstances Q&A’s production staff collate questions from the audience and during the show Q&A’s executive producer Peter McEvoy, from his control booth above the audience, has the final say on which questions will be put to the panel and prompts Tony Jones accordingly.

To his credit, in last week’s show McEvoy decided to let the public democratically select a question by popular vote, via the e-democracy platform developed by democratic media organisation OurSay. Ordinary citizens were invited to post questions on OurSay’s website and the public voted via the website for which question they liked the most, using Facebook and Twitter to inspire others to follow suit.

The question chosen was cleverly worded and delivered pithily by Peter Hinton, who asked why the federal government supports a program whereby “our vulnerable school children are to be counselled by men who believe that most of life’s problems can be resolved by talking to an invisible despot in the sky”.  The audience laughed and I did too, as it made for great TV. But make no mistake: this was not an adventure in democracy at all.

This was not the question that had received the most votes but was in fact chosen by McEvoy, Q&A’s very own “invisible despot” in the control room above the audience, albeit from the “top five” questions as voted by the public via OurSay. When it came to the crunch, McEvoy couldn’t bring himself to entrust the people with power over the agenda.  He chose the question he thought was the most relevant and entertaining.

The winning question from Leigh Ewbank read: “The government is investing $40 billion in the National Broadband Network and up to $50 billion for a new submarine fleet. Given that dealing with climate change is a priority for the Gillard government and the Australian public, why won’t it invest a similar amount in a nation-building renewable energy project with the scale and vision of a Snowy Mountains Scheme for the 21st century?”

To be fair to the ABC, it agreed only to use one of the top questions, but this was the winning question by a margin of 50%. Given this, before the show OurSay made numerous requests to McEvoy’s team that the top question be used, but these were ignored.

After the show, when I put to Tony Jones that this whole exercise demonstrated Q&A was in fact a dictatorship, McEvoy was present and acknowledged with a laugh that this was indeed the case. And therein lies the reality check: Q&A is in fact not democratic media. It is nothing more than an adventure in autocracy, cleverly repackaged to make us feel as though we are controlling the news agenda.

*Gary Newman is a freelance journalist. He volunteers for OurSay and was a guest in the Q&A control room on May 16.

Peter McEvoy, Executive Producer Q & A ABC TV writes:

Our agreement with OurSay was always that the Q&A producers would choose one of the top five questions as voted by participants in the OurSay game. That was the arrangement I suggested when I first approached OurSay in 2010. It’s what is written into the agreement between OurSay and Q&A and it was made clear to everyone who participated in the experiment. So when the author writes “Here’s how it was supposed to work”, it’s a flight of fancy. Gary Newman was not involved in OurSay’s negotiations with Q&A, so is either ignorant of our agreement or deliberately misleading. It was never agreed or intended that the top voted question be automatically used on Q&A.

As executive producer of Q&A I have editorial responsibility for decision making on the program, but my powers fall short of a despot, despite our green room jokes. Q&A decisions are made in collaboration with the other members of the editorial team. I think that on the whole we make pretty good choices and as executive producer I’m more than happy to stand by this decision and explain our reasoning.

We chose Peter Hinton’s OurSay question for several good editorial reasons. In contrast to the top voted question from Leigh Ewbank (about government investment in renewable energy) Hinton’s question raised an issue that hadn’t been discussed on the program before. Hinton’s question was one of two similar questions on government funding for school chaplains in the top five. Those two questions attracted 662 votes. Ewbank’s attracted 667 votes. Hinton’s question was well delivered but the issues it raised where more than simply entertaining: they generated a vigorous debate (as you can see) between the panellists on why the government should or should not spend more than $200 million on school chaplains.

I think Hinton’s question was the right choice: it was absolutely in line with the Q&A-OurSay agreement; it represented a popular choice; it raised a fresh issue and it generated a vigorous debate.

We don’t apologise for making political discussion and debate entertaining and engaging. We make editorial decisions about how to structure the program to ensure we can cover a broad range of viewpoints and issues, but the choices we make are in tune with our ambition to engage Australian citizens in political discussion.

The questions that Q&A puts to political leaders come from Australian citizens. That makes a difference: it puts the Wizz Fizz into Q&A, but there’ll always be someone who prefers prunes.

Peter Fray

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