With Tony Jones announcing his imminent departure from Q&A, it seems timely to take a good look at the little political panel show that his calm stewardship turned into a ratings semi-behemoth for the ABC.
And pay tribute to his hosting tenure, which most industry experts estimate has lasted between 30 and 40 years. I hope that when Tony reads this, he will take it in the spirit it was intended: as a comment.
When I think about Q&A, what I am struck by is how incredibly useless it is. I hope nobody misinterprets that statement — least of all Tony himself or any of his loveable sidekicks on the show such as Christopher Pyne or the guy who threw a shoe at John Howard.
I don’t mean it’s useless as a TV show. Indeed, as a TV show it ticks all the boxes: conflict, drama, occasional unconsciousness. It does exactly what a TV show is supposed to do, which is attract viewers, and the way it does this is by making as many people as possible incredibly angry.
Anger is why people watch Q&A, as we all know. People do not tune in to find out what the Shadow Minister for Aged Care is really like, or to get a more nuanced take on current fiscal policy settings. People tune in to see someone they hate say something they don’t want to hear, so they can work themselves up into a near-erotic state of fury. It’s like Orwell’s Two Minute Hate, except it lasts an hour and you can tweet about it.
So when I say that Q&A is pointless, I am not saying it doesn’t make great television, in the sense that “great television” is whatever makes viewers the angriest. I’m saying that in terms of the show’s stated aims — “putting you at the centre of the conversation” and displaying “democracy in action” — it not only fails: it doesn’t even really try to succeed.
I’m sorry if it shatters anyone’s illusions — especially Tony’s — but Q&A has basically nothing to do with “democracy”, except in the sense that, like all good entertainment, it distracts us from worrying about its rapid decay.
The idea promoted by the show is that it allows Ordinary People Just Like You And Me to ask questions on the Things That Matter To Us, and we will get answers. The theory goes that in this way we gain access to our leaders in a way that is otherwise impossible, cutting through the spin of parliament and press conferences to engage in real, unfiltered interactions between politician and citizen, much in the fashion of the town square of ancient Athens.
Firstly, the responses politicians give to questions on Q&A are about as free from spin as a Mumbai test match. It doesn’t matter what you ask an MP, they will give the answer they want to, and it’ll be the answer programmed into them at Party HQ. Secondly, the questioners are carefully selected not for their potential to cut to the heart of a matter but to maximise the chances of the Labor and Liberal representatives on the panel shouting at each other.
But more than the outrage, more than the empty slanging matches and prepackaged answers, the most glaring truth about Q&A is that nothing that happens on it will ever, ever change anyone’s mind.
The show runs to a formula: the Liberal gives the Liberal position, the Laborite gives the Labor position, the Liberal cheerleader backs up the Liberal, the Labor cheerleader backs up Labor, the Designated Reasonable Centrist asks why we all can’t just get along, and everyone in the country sits back with a post-coital sigh as they reflect for another week on just how correct they are about everything.
Like opinion writers, satirists and your mother, Q&A exists purely to reinforce your prejudices, preconceptions and sense of moral rectitude. Which is perfectly fine if it weren’t for the show’s irritating habit of framing itself as a constructive discussion rather than an exercise in collective ideological masturbation.
Of course, not every episode of Q&A features political enemies hurling slurs at each other. Sometimes the panel is made up of writers and artists with no party affiliation. These episodes perform a very different service: reminding us how boring writers and artists are. It’s handy every now and then for the show to demonstrate that as frustrating as seeing smug politicians argue is, seeing smug creatives agree with each other is even worse.
So good luck to you, Tony Jones, and well done on your leadership of what has truly become an Australian institution, for better or for worse.
The author has never been asked to be on Q&A and is not bitter. Ben Pbjie is a writer and a comedian.
This article was written by 10 Daily on the 12th of February 2019.