We ask the ques­tions

What makes tick? Nick Leys in­ves­ti­gates

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IT’S a chilly Mon­day night in Mel­bourne and the last place most peo­ple would choose to be is sit­ting in a deckchair in Fed­er­a­tion Square watch­ing a gi­ant screen as the wind off the Yarra whips around their legs. The deckchairs be­long to Q & A, the ABC1 pro­gram billed as ‘‘ ad­ven­tures in democ­racy’’, and they are there as part of the show’s on­go­ing quest to en­gage view­ers and find wider au­di­ences. Put out a deckchair and they will come and Tweet, de­spite the cold night air and chance of driz­zle. The chairs look lonely.

‘‘ Who thought that would be a good idea,’’ Q & A’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Peter McEvoy says of the deck chairs. ‘‘ Oh yeah, that would be me.’’

The fa­mously laid­back ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer’s self-dep­re­ca­tion is wasted, how­ever. By the time the show goes to air live about 80 Mel­bur­ni­ans will have taken up po­si­tion in the deckchairs to watch the night’s de­bate. And many will at­tempt to see a com­ment they have posted on Twit­ter with the ‘‘ qanda’’ hash­tag ac­tu­ally make it on to the show, a dig­i­tal tro­phy to brag about in some cir­cles.

Inside the venue, a large crowd is wait­ing, an en­thu­si­as­tic mob as you might ex­pect in in­ner-city Mel­bourne dur­ing the Writ­ers Fes­ti­val — for Q&A an an­nual ven­ture south from its home in the ABC’s Ul­timo stu­dios in Sydney’s in­ner west. They are here to see ac­tor Si­mon Cal­low; Ghana­ian-British-Amer­i­can philoso­pher and nov­el­ist An­thony Ap­piah; Nige­rian au­thor Sefi Atta; and a favourite on the show, the icon­o­clas­tic fem­i­nist and provo­ca­teur Ger­maine Greer.

There is an added bonus tonight as well as an­other Q&A favourite, jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor David Marr, is in the crowd as a guest and rip­ples of ex­cite­ment pass through those

their smart­phones on gath­ered. Many train Marr for a pic­ture.

A half-hour be­fore the show goes live the smart­phones and their shut­ters are at it again, this time as host Tony Jones ap­pears to wel­come them and give ad­vice. The sight of Jones raises the ex­cite­ment a few lev­els and re­minds those wait­ing pa­tiently they are about to be­come part of a live tele­vi­sion au­di­ence.

‘‘ Q&A is live po­lit­i­cal the­atre,’’ Jones tells them in a pep talk he de­liv­ers at about this time ev­ery Mon­day night. ‘‘ Keep that in mind. You are part of a live au­di­ence and it’s im­por­tant to have re­spect for each other and each other’s views.’’

Pep talk over, the crowd is ush­ered into the the­atre and the count­down to the show’s live open­ing be­gins. With min­utes to go, the guests are brought on one at a time and in­tro­duced to ap­plause that ranges from en­thu­si­as­tic (Cal­low) to thun­der­ous (Greer). The set is cleared of any­one not in­volved in the pro­duc­tion and ev­ery­thing goes quiet as the show’s theme mu­sic is played. ‘‘ Good evening, wel­come to Q & A, live from Mel­bourne’s Edge The­atre. I’m Tony Jones.’’ FOR­MER prime min­is­ter Paul Keat­ing was asked dur­ing a pub­lic event in Bris­bane a year ago if he would ever ap­pear on Q & A. His re­sponse was typ­i­cal of Keat­ing and no doubt made the av­er­age fan of the show laugh at the put­down but cry at his re­fusal to ap­pear.

It is a Punch and Judy show, he said, fea­tur­ing a ‘‘ rag­tag’’ bunch, peo­ple ‘‘ of no note what­so­ever’’. ‘‘ I wouldn’t be caught dead on it,’’ he said. ‘‘ If I was prime min­is­ter I would not let fed­eral min­is­ters go on that pro­gram. You just wash the gov­ern­ment through mud ev­ery time you turn up. If you go on Tony Jones’s [show] you need a hip flask of mace.’’

As it ap­proaches the end of its fifth year on our screens, Q&A ap­pears to have an im­age prob­lem. The show was de­vised and came to us with the aim of of­fer­ing an out­let for a weekly na­tional dis­course, a nat­u­ral home for the de­bate of po­lit­i­cal, moral and eth­i­cal is­sues fac­ing the community. It would find new voices to speak with the old and es­tab­lished ones and, more than any­thing else, pro­vide a forum that all Aus­tralians — con­ser­va­tive or rad­i­cal, metro or re­gional — could feel en­gaged in.

Has it suc­ceeded? Or, to use that hack­neyed phrase of tele­vi­sion criticism, has Q&A jumped the shark?

Re­view found a sur­pris­ing re­sponse from var­i­ous peo­ple about how im­por­tant the show was or what con­tri­bu­tion it made. Sev­eral of them po­litely de­clined to com­ment, not be­cause they didn’t like the show but be­cause they had ceased to watch it. Peo­ple in the me­dia and ar­eas of pub­lic pol­icy, those who you would ex­pect to be avid watch­ers, did not list the pro­gram as com­pul­sory view­ing.

The main criticism the show now faces

is

Pro­ducer Peter McEvoy and Tony Jones

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