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ABC apology was the error of judgment in Q&A affair

  • 29 June 2015

The Q&A spat was a rum affair. Zaky Mallah, a vocal opponent of ISIS with an interesting past asked a provocative question. He received a bullying response. The audience presumably made up its mind about the merits of the exchange, and that should have been that.

But then the Prime Minister asked whose side the ABC was on, and the ABC apologised. That was concerning, and perhaps another canary in the coalmine that is Australian public life.

Now many people see Q&A as more ego and waffle than the pursuit of truth. But the concept of exploring questions and seeking answers is surely a good one.

It is inconsistent with being on someone’s side.  It that was the starting point, the program based on it would need to be called ‘Answers, followed by approved questions by approved persons’.  Such a format would hardly lead to truth. That is why it was troubling that the ABC should apologise.

The notion that the ABC or Australians generally should stand up and be counted on someone’s side is also troubling.  There is no problem with being on one side or other of a conflict. We may take the side of the Tigers in a grand final, with farmers threatened by a coal mine, with protesters against wind farms, with one splinter group or another in Iraq and Syria. But to be called on to take sides is an impertinence.  

In reflecting on matters of dispute it is also has its dangers. If we are on someone’s side, we naturally exaggerate their virtues and minimise their faults, see the force of their arguments and discount the value of their opponents. We see are vulnerable to simple slogans, so neglecting the complexity in which we must seek the ethical values and predict the outcome of the outcome of conflict. That is why we need universities not beholden to the interests of their funding bodies and why we need programs like Q&A.

It is particularly dangerous for a Prime Minister to demand that public institutions or private citizens take a stand on complex issues. To take a stand for something means that you take a stand against something else.  In public debate something is always identified with someone. Causes become people.  So in the Q&A case, to take a stand means to condemn Zakky Mallah. From there it is a short slide to standing for genuine Australians against Muslim Australians.