Would somebody please think of the intellectuals?

I didn’t realise until today that my life is so much the poorer for not having intellectuals in it.

Really. Particularly when it comes to my involvement in Australia’s democratic processes. I mean, I didn’t realise that jousting with fellow tweeps while watching Q&A on a Monday night was as detrimental to my cerebral health as a deep fried Mars Bar is to my physical wellbeing.

Thank goodness Mel Campbell of The Enthusiast was able to enlighten me with her instructive piecein yesterday’s Crikey. Known as @IncredibleMelkon Twitter, Campbell bemoans our anti-intellectual culture and says that Q&A is:

The dully predictable, preening, posturing spectacle that passes for public debate in this country, accompanied by demented quipping and ranting on Twitter. Q&A is just the worst. Imagine if people actually fed their souls and read a book or watched a film for that hour instead.

Incredible Melk goes on to say that Q&A is intellectually barren because it reduces the notion of public debate to ritualised grandstanding and point-scoring. Perhaps I lived in a parallel universe to Mel when I learned debating last century, because I’m pretty sure both are legitimate debating tactics.

Nevertheless, Campbell dismisses the Australian viewing public’s engagement with Q&A as intellectually shallow and jocularly adversarial. It must be with unrealised irony then, that she goes on to explain why last night’s show was so unique and special.

This was due, Campbell exclaims, to the involvement of intellectuals on the panel. Clearly, Campbell was particularly taken with the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is fabulous, apparently, for amongst other things his bearded and dishevelled appearance, his lisp and wild gesticulation, his marriage to a model and his having the audacity to flip Tony Jones the bird.

Oh, and also his intellectual-ness, along with the other mega-brains on the panel. (Not counting The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, of course, who Campbell dubbed an “ill-informed numpty”.)

The best part of all was watching proper intellectuals – people who spend their lives thinking broadly and critically about the world around them. Whether or not you agreed with the panellists, it was electrifying to see them speaking insightfully and passionately about big issues and ideologies, abandoning Q&A’s usual numbingly parochial focus on federal government policy and giving the usual pack of suit-wearing Young Liberals in the audience very little to jeer at.

But I think Incredible Melk is missing the point. While she might bemoan the lack of intellectuals on Q&A, perhaps she should stop to think whether the program is in fact giving its dedicated audience what they want.

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott made clear in a recent speech that recognising what consumers want and giving it to them is an important part of fulfilling the ABC Charter.

We need to recognise that audiences expect to consume content in different ways. They don’t just sit on the couch and watch what’s on. Every day more content is time-shifted; more of the internet is consumed on a big screen; more television is watched on phones and tablets. The best radio from around the world is now available no matter where you live, just as you can read the world’s newspapers, anywhere, anytime.

And the demands of audiences increase. They want the latest news now. They want last night’s program today. They want to hear the Jon Faine interview – call in on talkback, comment in a chatroom. They want to ask the question from their living room of the Prime Minister on Q&A – and then tweet a comment on whether they liked the answer.

Scott specifically used Q&A as an example of the ABC’s changing relationship with their audience; of building upon the best of the old to deliver the new. He explained how Q&A is based on a ’70s program called Monday Conference, which featured a host, a panel of experts and a studio audience who asked questions. In those days, if you wanted to watch Monday Conference, you needed to tune in when it aired on the ABC’s only television channel. If you wanted to ask a question, then you had to be physically present in the ABC’s Gore Hill studio in Sydney.

Scott then went on to explain that the differences between Monday Conference and Q&A show how the ABC is meeting the new media world.

You don’t need to be at the ABC in Sydney to ask a question any more. Questions come in from people across Australia and around the world before and during the show – by email, through SMS, on video. Thousands of comments on Twitter as the show goes to air.

And you don’t just have to watch it on the main channel at 9.35 on Monday night. You can watch it live anywhere in the country and join the conversation through ABC News 24. You can watch it streaming online, or on your iPhone or an iPad. You can listen on News Radio. Or, if you are offshore, you can listen live on Radio Australia or watch live on Australia Network. And if you miss all that, catch up on iView.

Scott’s conclusion to this vignette sums up, for me, why the ABC continues to be a successful media organisation while others do not:

We are creating content that is informed by our audiences and engages them – and we deliver it to them at a time they want, on a device they want, in a format they want. And Q&A is making an important contribution to the public debate and discourse. Around a million tune in or catch up each week and watch it – and every politician in this town knows how important it is. And every time we get the chance to take it out of Sydney, the reaction from the places it goes to – Perth or Hobart or Albury – demonstrates its appeal. It has been an important addition to our mix of public affairs programs, and has allowed the public to hear more views and different voices around significant issues.

This is what Incredible Mel is missing with her ponitification about the lack of real intellectuals on Q&A. It’s most probably because most of us aren’t interested in hearing from lofty windbags with no real connection to our own lives. We’re more interested in hearing from people we know, like, dislike, aspire to be, or want to punish at the ballot box.

Yes, Q&A is a modern Punch and Judy show. Yes it can be hit and miss with its panellists and overly obsessed with political issues of the day. But I believe we think of it more as a theatre-in-the-round than a podium, a place to get a bit rowdy and controversial and let off a bit of political steam. Sure, there’s a place for intellectualism too, but not at the expense of our robust and enthusiastic engagement in this delightful, dynamic and digital colosseum.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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