Recently added to PM Turnbull’s Christmas reading list is the much-anticipated ‘independent’ report into the ABC’s flagship Q&A programme by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown – a review prompted by vehement protestations by then-PM Tony Abbott that the programme is outrageously biased.
Perception of bias is subjective, of course, so I can understand that the national broadcaster’s initial response might have been defensive. But surely the responsible course of action for an organisation that exists solely by courtesy of $1 billion-plus worth of taxpayer largesse would be to treat the complaint with a modicum of respect. In this regard the choice of Ray Martin, himself a former ABCer and an avowed admirer, was curious to the point of making the jaw drop.
I’ve dipped into this 108-page report and can confirm that, as as students of the ABC fully expected, Martin and fellow investigator Shaun Brown, formerly of SBS, issue a clean bill of health on the substantive issue of bias. The duo throws a couple of bones to progressive critics of the show (if there are any), notably that there are not enough female guests (a problem attributed in part to the lack of women on Tony Abbott’s front bench) and they also suggest that the show get out of Sydney more often to learn what the rest of the country is thinking and saying.
Getting to the nub of the report, Martin and Brown, as expected, delpoy statistics to show us there is no bias. According to the report, their review of 23 programs showed the Coalition had 19 representatives, the ALP 17, Greens 1 and Independent/Others 3. That metric, it appears, is the primary basis to proclaim that Q&A is not biased, not in the least.
My keen interest over many years in the climate change debate and the allegedly settled science that underwrites it has taught me to approach quoted statistics with not a pinch of salt but a wheelbarrow. So I decided to take an independent look at Q&A, just to see it the Martin-Brown numbers withstand the scrutiny of an independent eye. It is my sad duty to report that they bear little relation to reality.
For my analysis, I drew up three columns: Sympathetic to Coalition, Hostile to Coalition, and Neutral. I surveyed the panels for all of 2015’s programs. What I found, as might anyone who cares to look, is that there were:
- 28 sitting Coalition MPs (State and Federal), and
- 38 sitting MPs (State and Federal) hostile to the Coalition (I include ALP, all Greens, Palmer, Lambie and Xenophon in this category).
All of a sudden, it didn’t look quite so balanced. Those figures alone, untainted by any suggestion of subjectivity, show clear bias and contradict the claims of Martin/Brown.
But if we then add to the mix retired politicians of all flavours, as well as political commentators and activists, we find the imbalance increases alarmingly. Here I’ve had to exercise some judgment when assigning journalists and other non-politicians. Should readers disagree with my analysis I will be happy to be corrected in the comments thread below.
I classified Greg Sheridan, Rowan Dean, John Roskam, Kate Carnell, Graham Morris and Tim Wilson, Fred Nile and Katy Faust (traditional marriage advocate) as likely being sympathetic to the Coalition.
I classified Ann Summers, Geoffrey Robertson, David Marr, Corinne Grant, Lisa Wilkinson, Gillian Triggs, Dee Madigan, Miriam Margolyes, Wendy Harmer, Paul Ehrlich, Peter Singer, Annabel Crabb, Brian Schmidt, John Daley, Tony Windsor and Van Badham among those likely to be hostile to the Coalition. There were many others as well — any guest, for example, representing an organization with the words ‘human rights’ in its title.
Altogether, by my estimation, the panellists for 2015 comprised:
- 42 likely to be sympathetic to the Coalition,
- 74 likely to be hostile to the Coalition, and
- 62 nominally neutral, but in many cases they were in this category because I gave them the very generous benefit of the doubt. My inclination (which I manfully resisted) was to classify anyone with a university connection as hostile, but notwithstanding this, I would suspect that well over 50% of these 62 would incline Left.
Add moderator Tony Jones to the mix and the imbalance becomes even more pronounced.
But, of course, these statistics are not the real story because they reveal nothing about the tone and tenor of the questions and commentary, which I do not intend to address because they are well known to Quadrant readers. My intention here is not to prove Q&A’s bias but to shine some light on the Martin/Brown thesis.
Their report ignored the Zaky Mallah episode, apparently because the ABC had already admitted an error of judgement in that case. They also highlighted as unbalanced the episode of June 18, in which Rev Fred Nile was the lone traditional voice against five LBGTI advocates. They also made note of the June 22 show, which saw two conservatives pitted against four ‘vociferous’ progressives. These episodes were noted as lacking in balance but were dismissed as ‘isolated lapses in judgment and not systemic’. Notable by their absence were ‘isolated lapses in judgment’ favouring conservative guests and perspectives.
No doubt our PM and his new communications minister will be glad to have been assured by Martin and Brown that, apart from a few quibbles, Q&A is a near-impeccable example of the ABC discharging its duties as mandated by the broadcaster’s Charter. We can take this to mean it will be business as usual in Ultimo.
If newly anointed Managing Director Michelle Guthrie wishes to make a favourable impression in her upcoming role, she might want to consider tapping a broader pool of talent when subjecting her outfit to the next round of independent scrutiny. Any number of Quadrant contributors would jump at such an opportunity.