Australian politicians claim to be outraged. The national broadcaster is on the ropes.
Why? Because a TV opinion programme presented a controversial opinion.
Q&A is a formatted current affairs discussion programme much like others shown around the world. Members of the audience put the questions; a panel of politicians and - producers hope – personalities-with-opinions answer them.
Simple. But often quite dull.
I used to work on a similar programme in London. The aim of producers like me was to bring current affairs to life, with strong - ideally sharply contrasting - opinions on the questions of the day. Mine was on a commercial channel - the enemy of good ratings was consensus. We wanted fiery rows.
Well, on Monday Q&A certainly got one.
One of the top topics of the week? Proposed laws that would strip Australians of their citizenship if they travelled to fight with ISIL. Controversial, but a bit removed. You don’t tend to see those who’d be directly affected talking on TV. A live link to Raqqa to hear from one of the hundred or so Australians fighting in Iraq or Syria would be a bit impractical. Even a video question sent from there would be pushing it.
So Zaky Mallah was the next best thing. A decade ago he was convicted for threatening to kill government officials. He had been tried for much more serious terrorism offences, though acquitted. Much more recently - four years ago - he travelled to Syria and met with fighters. He has photos of himself holding a gun there, though he claims he didn’t fight. Either way, under the proposed laws he’s the sort of person who could in the future - in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's words - be "banished" from Australia.
So he asked a question. And – verbally - it all got a bit nasty. But it was good TV and his presence gave viewers an idea of the sort of person the new legislation would directly affect. Until then, it had all been a bit theoretical.
After a fiery exchange over citizenship with a government MP, Mallah said Australian Muslims could feel "justified" in joining ISIL.
And the outrage since. The outrage!
Two reasons. Who Mallah is and what Mallah said.
First - who he is. I interviewed Zaky Mallah more than two years ago. Back then, before ISIL was popularly known as ISIL, fighting for the Free Syrian Army wasn’t considered quite as extreme as fighting with the ISIL has now become. After all, in President Bashar al-Assad, the FSA and the West had a common enemy.
When I interviewed him, I thought Mallah was something of a lost boy looking for drama - and attention. His experience of the former meant I gave him some of the latter. For my report he had the right story, so I included him in it. I imagine Q&A producers had similar thoughts - his background was bang on the money given the topic of the debate.
Second - what he said. As Jonathan Holmes has written it isn’t quite as reported. Nevertheless, it’s controversial. But so it should be.
Off the record I’ve spoken to people trying to run government-funded de-radicalisation initiatives who are in despair about the government’s approach. These are not the "usual suspects". They are white, mostly non-Muslim employees of government agencies that are firmly part of the apparatus of the state. And they’ve said very similar things to me as Mallah said on Q&A: that the rhetoric, and now legislation, coming out of Canberra is pushing young men towards extreme actions.
I’ve talked to young men in the western suburbs of Sydney who - likewise - have said how they are thinking about travelling to Syria, and how the words and actions of the Australian government are helping firm a decision in that direction.
Some may say their views are crazy. But they are views that are not going to be addressed if they're not allowed to be heard. The national broadcaster should be allowed to be part of the national debate. To shut it down isn't just insane, it's dangerous.