Tony Jones invites Q&A audiences into an illusory democracy, where “representation” belies equality.

By Helen Razer.

Q&A’s false democracy

Tony Abbott with Q&A host Tony Jones, in front of a live audience.
Tony Abbott with Q&A host Tony Jones, in front of a live audience.
Credit: AAP Image

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Last year on ABC’s modestly successful policy panel show Q&A, a group of university students smuggled their moderately successful rage past security to unfurl a banner advocating free education. For several minutes they chanted, and for several minutes the program’s host, Tony Jones, made like a guardian of reform in Athens’ Golden Age. “That is not what democracy is all about!” he said, as though he were Pericles, this was the agora and the rabble an underserving council. The students were removed.

Shouting on the telly may not be what our hushed liberal democracy is “all about”, but it certainly made for welcome viewing. Amid the weasel words of politicians, the blandly compassionate speech of well-meaning actors tied up in awareness ribbons, and audience questions that serve less to seek an answer than they do to publicly state a position with which most everyone already vehemently agrees or disagrees, it was fun to hear from some legitimate ratbags making a loud and legitimate case.

But, according to Jones, this was not democracy. Democracy, both in the minds of the Q&A producers and some of its viewers, is a stage-managed affair that happens most often on TV.

Of course, questions as to the nature of democracy have been asked and answered by both able and brutal minds for two millennia and, while many of them have got it terribly wrong, not one of them ever came up with something as silly as, “a process that unfolds in Studio 22 for an hour every Monday”. But the way in which we have begun to understand democracy and the personal freedoms it purports to guarantee does tend to be now by means of such performance.

Politicians have been popping on the telly to face down journalists for some time now. The illusion of a direct Athenian democracy – itself an illusion – is something mass culture has given us for decades. Before Q&A with its singers and tweeters and “real” people purporting to represent the masses, the charade was less extravagant.

About the time of the birth of television, thinkers Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of the cool medium that gave us political speech in our living rooms that it “perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises”. Which is to say, the journalist was a counterfeit everyman mimicking “democracy”, giving us the impression that the leaders of a multi-party system had any interest in telling truth and giving power to the people.

Because millions participated, or felt they were participating, in the medium of television, the idea of a truly representative democracy gained momentum. One could, regardless of social and economic circumstances, watch the same political pronouncements, just as one watched the same family comedies, and feel equal to everyone else. A boss and his employee would see the same unfolding of Whitlam’s dismissal or the same declaration by Nixon: “I am not a crook! I am not a crook!” That we had equal access to the performance of these scandals didn’t change the fact that we remained as unequal as the power relations that allowed the scandals to occur. Adorno and Horkheimer saw politics on television as an advanced deception. Even more advanced than Athens, where slaves and women were not permitted access to democracy. Not even by Pericles.

Television quickly became that apparatus that gave us the mass-produced sensation that we all had functioning equal rights to know. Q&A is a step beyond what the Frankfurt School called the “culture industry”. It is more like something we could call the empowerment industry and it owes as much to talk shows such as Oprah as it does to the history of political journalism. Here we are. All together. Just being, apparently, equal.

With a series of tricks learned from talkback radio and online liberal media, this program gives us the impression, even more deceitfully than political television of previous decades, that “we” have “a voice”. We are falsely empowered by the delusion that we matter.

Q&A deceitfully purports to represent the concerns of The People but, somehow or other, asks itself and answers pretty much the same questions with the same lack of complexity and surplus of spin every week. In the time that Q&A and other “real” shows about politics such as SBS’s Insight have been on air, Australian politics has become more, not less, conservative. Our tax is less progressive, our social safety net more scant and our susceptibility to surveillance more extreme. The empowerment industry, as Adorno and Horkheimer predicted, allows the illusion of equality to permit the growth of inequality. It’s all okay so long as we feel we have “a voice”.

There is always much talk following the Monday night broadcast, both in social and traditional media, about the components of the panel. We need it to be more “equal”. People bemoan the majority of old, white men. But, given that old, white men are the people who make the majority of the decisions for the polity, their regular appearance on the program would seem to make sense.

In recent years, Q&A has made attempts to embrace the views of people who are not old, white and male. This past Monday, in fact, even Pericles was temporarily deposed and replaced by the Athena of the Australian commentariat, Annabel Crabb. Crabb presided over an all-girl panel custom-fit for the occasion of International Women’s Day, a holiday given over to the discussion of laser hair removal, “work–life balance” and whether it is okay to self-describe as a feminist while wearing nail polish. The broad opinion seemed to be that this momentary reversal of gender, albeit one that produced inane conversation, was a good thing for “democracy”, and when a young woman asked if the usual lack of women on the panel wasn’t, in fact, a bad thing for “democracy”, everyone took her quite seriously.

It is clear. As long as we are “represented” in all our diversity, the reality of our equality seems to be a secondary matter. Because democracy begins and ends on TV.

And on our screens we don’t even care to see our democratic representatives represent us. Increasingly, people who are not actually politicians or expert in politics are invited to the Q&A panel. We have singers and poets and, for some reason, in recent months the guy who plays Hercule Poirot and the guy who takes the pig to victory in Babe. Fictional Belgian detectives begin their inadequate answers to predictable questions with “Well, I’m not really an expert in politics” and then continue the thought in any case. That such people would be better to fall into silence on matters of national security is not the point of Q&A. The point is to show, as the program’s tagline promises, “democracy in action”.

And so, we are to believe, as we have been increasingly believing since the birth of mass culture, that democracy is not a very particular system in which our participation is strictly codified. Democracy is something that everyone plays a part in – well, just so long as they are not young students justifiably enraged that their expensive degrees are unlikely to end in employment. In watching Q&A, we openly hope that the panel be both diverse and polite. But perhaps our covert desire is for delusion. If we see people who may be a little like us disagreeing with people who are not like us, then we are spared the problem of thinking about how genuinely terrible are the things our “real” democracy is producing. So long as the fake one seems empowering, we’re happy.

Perhaps, though, Q&A is itself deluded. Almost certainly, Pericles Jones does think of himself as a purveyor of “democracy” rather than an interpolator of sound bites, and that’s a bit deluded. It is also delusional to make a commitment to the microblogging site Twitter as a direct conduit to public opinion. Less than 5 per cent of Australians use Twitter, about the same number of people who use the hotel review site TripAdvisor. But Twitter, like Q&A, is used chiefly as a means of issuing short bursts of predictable opinion. And so, between just 3000 and 5000 Australians, many of them journalists already employed in an empowerment industry, do just this at speed every Monday night. They do this in the hope that their tweets will move off the internet and onto the screens of the industry’s terrestrial branch.

Q&A likely believes in itself at the level of production. It seems to be earnest in its attempts to do the impossible and represent the real. However, it tends to enjoy its best audience numbers when its panel is emptied of entertainment industry pundits. In recent years, solo interviews with Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull have attained the biggest numbers.

And while it might seem “disempowering” to find that people are more interested in hearing leaders speak than Buddhist actors from Babe or stars formed in the strange galaxy of Twitter, it could be seen as encouraging as well. If we still have a hunger, despite all this false empowerment, to interrogate the genuinely powerful, perhaps we are less deluded than the producers of Q&A.

This is not to say, of course, that Q&A is not great fun. It is great fun, most especially with the acceleration of social media and shiraz. But it is not “democracy in action”. Rather, it is the delusion of empowerment in action. It is democracy inert.

1 . Arts diary

MUSIC  Black Harmony Gathering
Fairfield Amphitheatre, Melbourne, March 15

VISUAL ART  Photography Meets Feminism
Newcastle Art Gallery, until April 26

VISUAL ART  Painting for Antarctica
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney,
until August 9

OPERA  Tosca
Sydney Opera House, until March 17
Last chance

THEATRE  Beckett Triptych
State Theatre Company Scenic Workshop, Adelaide,
until March 15

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2015 as "Control panel".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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