Last year, I found myself invited into the audience of the ABC’s Q&A program with a few high school friends. Despite being interested in politics, we knew we’d be somewhat out of place amongst the hard-core politicos in the audience. There was an unspoken recognition that we were only there to satisfy the program’s age diversity requirement. So what was the only logical way of getting the most out of the experience? We all went out to a bar before-hand and got smashed.
Trying to comprehend Paul Kelly and Gareth Evans debating regional foreign policy whilst being significantly inebriated was an intense struggle, but it will always be a fond memory. Furthermore, it fostered a profound respect for Tony Jones & Co in their efforts to facilitate public debate.
It has become increasingly cool for commentators to criticize Q&A. The Guardian’s Gabrielle Jackson has written it off. The Saturday Paper’s Helen Razer believes it to be mass manipulation by cultural elites. Much of its criticism centres on its creation of a “false democracy,” perpetuating the idea that the public can exert genuine influence on politics when they really can’t. Q&A, they say, satisfies the people’s desire for a “voice,” feeling as if we are holding the elites to account whilst they continue to ignore us and continue doing as they like.
This criticism ignores the material facts. Q&A cannot be a simulation of democracy. Democracy cannot be simulated in a TV studio. I very much doubt that its producers try. As user Bruce Smith commented on Helen Razer’s article:
“…the very fact that Q&A is on a medium such as TV for a start means that it’s content is by necessity diluted and compromised. In such a medium that can’t be helped. What more of a one hour show can you expect?”
Q&A simply tries to facilitate a conversation about public life between as many people as possible within the rigid confines of an hourly TV program. It is inevitably imperfect in achieving this – some people will always be left out of the conversation. But Q&A, more than anything else in the Australian media landscape, attempts to include as many people as possible through as many methods as it can implement (the audience, the panellists, online questions, the Twitter feed…)
Let us consider what a truly democratic television show would actually look like. It would probably be a diverse group of people talking amongst themselves for an hour about politics and public life. No panel of experts, just people talking. They would preferably do so in a civilized manner but this could not be guaranteed, and existing inequalities between audience members would privilege some in the debate over others. It would probably result in either a shouting match, or a supremely boring conversation. This could not actually be put to air.
Conversely, if Q&A were actually representative of our democracy, it would likely be as follows: there would be only a few politicians on the panel, mainly Liberal and Labor and no celebrities or commentators. It would involve no questioning or cross-examining of the politicians featured, other than the occasional and rather pedestrian contribution of a News Corp or Fairfax journalist, and one who interjects much less than Tony Jones. There would be media advisers constantly whispering in the ears of the panellists. The tweets would solely come from vested interests, with Rupert Murdoch being a regular feature. Again, this could not justifiably be put to air by a public broadcaster, because it serves no public good which is not already served.
Q&A does neither of these. It is not overly aspirational nor overly realistic. It seeks not to emulate the Athenian polis, nor the arduous grind of modern day Canberra. Q&A is more like a community rally – a Labor MP fielding questions from union members or a National MP conversing with assembled farmers in an outback town. People get to throw some thorny questions at their representatives and force an, often awkward, response. Not everyone can speak within the given time frame, so it is necessarily moderated. The responses of the MP could be sub-standard, patronizing or deceitful, and the audience might laugh their ego down to size or applaud emphatically. Either way, the public will have got something out of it – they are either enlightened, or their suspicions are confirmed.
Critics like Razer, who quotes extensively from the Frankfurt School, need to give up on the idea of a neutral and equal “public sphere” where all citizens can exchange ideas rationally. Such a space has never existed, with even the eulogized French salons, liberal universities and Greek symposiums possessing inherent barriers, which Razer recognizes when saying that “slaves and women were not permitted access to democracy (in Athens.)” However, accepting that a utopian public sphere can never exist does not prohibit us from trying to engage in discussion about public life as best we can – in fact, the functioning of our democracy depends on it.
This is not to say Q&A is perfect. Often their panel selection is uninspired, the tweets add little value and questions become self-advertising comments which Tony quickly dismisses. But, as a singular component of a complex public sphere, Q&A endeavours to enrich our national debate with as many perspectives as possible for an underfunded national broadcaster operating within a limited time frame and navigating countless logistical issues. So I don’t care what Helen Razer does at 9:30pm on a Monday night but I’ll know what I’ll be doing.