On a brisk autumn night they come in their hundreds to the Melbourne Recital Centre. Q & A is in town and high priest Tony Jones is at the altar for another exchange of ideas between the influential and the masses.
At nearly 1000 people, the numbers are so huge it takes an election booth-style A-K and L-Z lists just to check-in the audience. While waiting for the proceedings to begin they are entertained by a musical duo. Tonight in Melbourne the show is without its Sydney warm-up man, comedian Tommy Dean, but producer Peter McEvoy compensates by talking through the ‘do’s and dont’s’ prior to the show commencing.
The show has literally received hundreds of questions submitted in advance. McEvoy apologises for the reality that the show will only get to about 12 of them, hand-picked by producers. For those that revolve around a common issue, just one will be chosen. These reflect the week in news and those that are pertinent to the guests on this week’s panel.
The lucky 12 stand up so that crew know where to find them. They are instructed to ignore the overhead microphone (it’s a bad look to direct their question to a mike rather than to the panel) and they must never waver from the agreed question -but they can follow-up by raising their hand. In recent weeks Tony Jones had to politely reprimand one audience member who decided to weigh in with a different question. McEvoy suggests the national embarrassment is not worth it…
Backstage the guests are in the make-up chair or chatting with one another in the Green Room. Tonight the guests are Rachel Griffiths, Eddie McGuire, transport magnate Lindsay Fox, Liberal member for Higgins Kelly O’Dwyer and Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles. It’s in the Green Room that some will meet for the first time and, despite any panel disagreements, will put personal politics to one side.
As a location broadcast, the control room is confined to a O.B. truck at the rear of the building, including the show’s Twitter nerve centre. There are several gatekeepers across the show’s ever-popular feed, to ensure various stages of moderation. Two of them are reading everything simultaneously as the tweets start rolling in. They will forward a selection to a third producer who takes responsibility on which ones make it to air. I’m advised if you want to get your comment on air you need to be quick with a tweet once the topic is raised on the show. Again, there is no duplication of opinion: once one viewpoint makes it to air, all others that reflect a similar view are superfluous. Be quick or be fresh with an original take.
Tony Jones is deep in research on the questions until meeting guests in the Green Room and joining McEvoy’s audience preamble so he knows where the questions are coming from. The promo which airs minutes before the show (with crew wandering on set) is totally live to air.
The topics on the show are as diverse as the panel: Griffiths’ planned portrayal of Julia Gillard, bullying, Arthur Sinodinos, James Hird’s status with Essendon Football Club, asylum seekers, cyclists v motorists, Mad Monday, Hilary Clinton.
For a show, and broadcaster, that is frequently the target of journalists with an axe to grind, I am amused that these topics are being robustly debated in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
Q & A has always modelled itself on a “town hall” forum. Tonight the audience comprises a vast cross-section: they are here from babes in arms to seniors, they are Gen X (even a few Gen Y) and all sizes, colours and presumably diverse in education, politics, religion and affluence.
“I think this is one of the great things we have to offer,” Tony Jones tells me after the show. “We seem to be appealing to a younger demographic than would traditionally watch the ABC. Someone said ‘They’re not the Midsomer Murders are they?’ Which might or might not be true, because I quite like Midsomer Murders.”
While the guests may come and go, and the questions flow from across the country, Jones is the key to Q & A‘s success. At any given moment he is juggling equal airtime to the panel, keeping the conversation on topic, facilitating both sides of an argument, with a director in his earpiece, an audience bursting with questions, avoiding legal hotspots and peppering the show with a little bit of humour. All live to air with no commercial break.
“It’s important to have a sense of humour. You have to lighten the load a little bit. I think the audience likes the fact that not everything everyone says they are going to get right, but logic is not always right. You’re on Live television. A lot of people, politicians included sometimes (muck up),” he says.
“For instance Richard Miles tonight, I suspect probably doesn’t mean to say it’s a terrific thing that the turn-back-the-boats seems to be working because it’s saving lives. It’s not the politically-correct thing to say from his point of view.
“He said it however, and then when I pointed out what he just said he back-pedalled a bit.
“But we had the most fabulous panel. It’s not that often you get people in the city who are are all incredibly well-known, arguably superstars, not only in the town but also nationally.”
After the show the panel relax with a “cheap white wine” in the foyer of the venue. On-air disagreements are put to one side. Jones says the guest camaraderie tonight is actually typical of the show’s respectful atmosphere.
“I think it’s true to say that most professional politicians know their job is not to hate the other person, but to put opposing opinions fiercely and publicly. But behind the scenes they both know ‘We are professional politicians.’ You very rarely find, behind the scenes, hatred or general distaste for the other side. Sometimes you can actually see it on the panel. No names, no pack drill,” he quips.
“Part of the trick of this show is to move them out of that and into talking about other things and showing a kind of human side.
“When we can do it, the best shows with politicians are the ones where you suddenly learn something new. You have some insight into the way they think.”
Next month Q & A will present a show from China, it’s third overseas broadcast. With 5.5 years under his belt, I can’t help but ask how long Jones sees himself in the hosting chair. I’m reassured by his answer.
“It’s an impossible question to answer. It’s so much fun it’s hard to imagine not doing it. I’m not going to do the ‘John Howard’ and say ‘I’m 64 now and will have to start thinking about 65 as retirement age!’” he explains.
“I have no idea how long I will do it for or how long the ABC will keep it going, which is a critical point as well.
“The truth is, the show is doing well, people love it, so I’m hoping it will stay for a while and I will stay for a while doing it.”
Q & A airs 9:35pm Mondays on ABC1 and is simulcast on ABC News 24.