Minus Q

An exchange of letters between Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott and Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) James Spigelman establishes the terms under which Liberal ministers will be allowed to appear on ABC’s television panel show, Q&A.

The leaked correspondence suggests that Q&A will be transferred to ABC’s news division, following an internal review to take place over a period of 15–18 weeks. In response to a letter sent by Spigelman on July 9, Abbott endorses the shared proposal, with a caveat.

Dear Mr Spigelman Jim,

Thank you for your letter of July 9 prompted by the notorious Q&A episode of 22 June.

In discussion with the ABC, the Communications Minister was given to expect that Q&A would be moved to news and current affairs – which would be appropriate for such a programme.

In your letter to me, you indicate that transferring Q&A to the news division “has merit.”

Frontbenchers look forward to resuming their participation on Q&A once this move takes place.

I hope this can happen as soon as possible.

With all best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Abbott

Liberal frontbenchers won’t be allowed to appear on Q&A until the programme is moved to ABC’s news division. Strange that this fairly arbitrary shuffle should be the sole point of contention, given that moving the programme to another division will do nothing to change the fundamental editorial policies of the ABC.

Matthew Ricketson, writing for the Conversation, gives six reasons why Abbott’s ultimatum makes little sense.

Q&A will be subject to the same editorial policies, regardless of the division of the ABC it is placed in.

The division of the ABC that The Weekend Australian says will impose “much more rigorous demands” on Q&A is the same division that Abbott, government MPs and News Corp have vociferously accused of left-wing, inner-city bias.

Abbott’s suggestion to shift Q&A, made in a letter to the ABC’s chairman, is a clear case of attempting to interfere with the ABC’s independence, which is enshrined in legislation.

Abbott appears to be pre-empting the recommendations of the independent review of Q&A.

Abbott’s decision to order a frontbench boycott of Q&A was both hypocritical – in opposition, he said he was “not in the business of ignoring a big audience” (in reference to the then-government’s boycott of Alan Jones’ radio show) – and counter-productive. He has drawn attention to the government’s obsession with controlling how national security issues are debated.

As Denis Muller recently argued, there were problems with the offending Q&A programme. But these were primarily errors of editorial judgement that could have been dealt with internally.

The Liberal Party’s hysterical response to the minor inconvenience of having former terror suspect Zak Mallah ask Parliamentary Secretary Steven Ciobo a tough question is revealed for what it is: a thuggish show of strength and contempt for freedom of speech and of a free press unconstrained by government interference.

China offers its support.

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