If you were making a list of the Australian television shows that have caused the most controversy over the years you might imagine it would mostly consist of soapies and reality TV—with the occasional music program mixed in. But our national broadcaster might feel it has a claim to the top spot, with a show that couldn’t be any further away in style or content from shows like Married at First Sight.
In the decade since it first aired, the ABC’s Q&A program has become a fixture of Australian television. Hosted by Tony Jones, it tackles the hottest topics in the public arena, using a question-and-answer format that encourages audience interaction. Usually, five panellists—typically made up of a politician from both major parties, and a mix of media personalities, academics and celebrities—are required to answer questions from viewers and the studio audience.
Given the increasingly charged atmosphere of public debate, and the polarising topics chosen, it’s no surprise that there are few soft questions, and panellists are really made to sweat. But it’s a formula that has provided some compelling television, and forced a number of politicians to spell out their positions on certain issues, rather than trying to avoid committing.
However, it’s also seen the ABC receive a significant amount of criticism. It has been repeatedly accused of bias against conservative politicians and commentators, and pursuing a particular agenda. There have also been a number of incidents where the live and unscripted format has blown up in the ABC’s face and allowed things to go to air that many would argue should never have done so—its 10 years seeing everything from shoes thrown at a former Prime Minister to what many saw as giving a platform to terrorists.
Despite this, there is no doubt that it has encouraged public debate, and imposed a degree of accountability and transparency on our political figures. Theoretically, any Australian, no matter their place in society, can demand answers of our highest officials—and their response will be subjected to public scrutiny.
If the way that the hashtag #qanda takes over social media during the show’s broadcast is any indication, the public has embraced this opportunity. Whatever Q&A’s faults—and there a few—it’s undeniable that the simple fact of its existence and longevity is a sign that we live in a remarkably free and open society that few countries can compare to.
Q&A can be uncomfortable viewing, especially when our own beliefs or opinions are being attacked or challenged. And the often heated discussions can be confronting, with little held back. But, especially in an age where it seems that people are increasingly surrounding themselves with those who agree with them and becoming insulated from differing points of view, it might be more valuable than ever.
Like the panellists, we may find that coming face to face with opposing viewpoints will force us to clarify our own beliefs and why we hold them—and leave us the stronger and more effective for it.