Malcolm Turnbull sent his departmental officers into the ABC to review the June 22 episode of Q&A, and as heavy-handed attacks on free speech go, it was a bit of a fizzer.

Compared to the immediate apology that upset diehard fans of the public broadcaster, the conservative backlash to CEO Mark Scott’s passionate defence of the station’s independence or the ABC board’s censure of executive producer Peter McEvoy and endorsement of that apology, it seems the Department of Communications review wasn’t so painful after all.

summary released this afternoon points out the Department was not asked for opinions or recommendations and gave Turnbull none:

“The role of the department has been to establish the relevant facts and provide these to the minister.”

The summary goes on to say departmental staff asked the ABC questions verbally and in writing, there was co-operation, and the department took the answers at face value:

“While the department has no reason to doubt the veracity of the information provided by the ABC, the department has not audited that information.”

The ABC was also given a look at the first draft of the review and “relevant comments and clarifications” were included as a result.

The summary reveals the ABC attempted to contact two external experts before the decision to have Zaky Mallah ask a question in the audience. It wasn’t able to get on to these experts, and so relied on the advice of its own journalists in staging the question.

The security concerns of having Mallah in the audience have been addressed but will not be published as they are classified “security in confidence” but the ABC board’s Wednesday statement on the issue says it found a Australian Federal Police briefing helpful.

The broadcaster had received 962 complaints about the episode as of Monday and is considering them. Any that are not responded to within 60 days, or where the complainant is unsatisfied with the response, could be elevated to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

After the report was released, an ABC spokesman said the ABC had also received over 900 letters and calls of support since the episode aired.

At least two other reviews touching on the episode are ongoing. The ABC’s editorial standards division will have to respond to the complaints it received. And an external editorial audit of the first 22 episodes of Q&A this year, conducted by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown, is expected to report in a few months.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Crikey sister site The Mandarin. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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