The departure of Hamish Macdonald from the position of host of the ABC’s Q+A program should, logically, have occasioned some comment from the country’s media, given that the program in question is one of the taxpayer funded channel’s flagship offerings.
That it has gone mostly unremarked is due to one reason: Macdonald is perceived as being from the left and publications who tilt towards that side of politics have remained silent as a show of solidarity.
To date, nothing has appeared to analyse why he quite what is a high-profile role in Australia. Some said he had left the program because he had experienced a lot of trolling on social media — he shut down his Twitter account though a lot of interaction for Q+A takes place through this platform — while others studiously avoided speculating on why Macdonald may have decided to return to Channel 10’s The Project.
After he left, Q+A has had three hosts, all senior ABC broadcasters, in rotation: Virginia Trioli, David Speers and Stan Grant. No publication has said much about the impact they have had on the show, with only the Guardian commenting, “Although the ratings for Q+A fluctuate according to COVID lockdowns and the political climate, the show did attract higher ratings when Macdonald was absent and there were fill-in hosts including Virginia Trioli, David Speers and Stan Grant.”
In April, the Nine newspapers wrote about the show’s poor ratings after Macdonald was installed in the presenter’s chair. “Audience figures for Q+A have plummeted this year. Last week [25 March], it failed to crack the top 20 free-to-air programs on the Thursday night it aired, indicating a capital city audience of just 237,000. In March 2020, the number was above 500,000, and likewise in March 2016,” reviewer Craig Mathieson wrote.
Macdonald had to cope with Q+A’s switch from Monday to Thursday and also had to replace a much more experienced and mature host, Tony Jones. Being relatively young — he is close to 40 — and clearly more suited to tabloid TV, Macdonald was not exactly the best choice for Q+A.
Additionally, there is an old adage that says, “leave well alone”, meaning that one should not disturb settings that make a program function well. But Macdonald meddled with things which were running smoothly and that may have played a role in the dismal ratings that Q+A suffered.
For one, the program changed its name from Q&A to Q+A, an indication that superficiality was going to be the order under Macdonald. The ABC prides itself on being a serious news channel; that is what it claims as its strong point. He also tried to make the program more activist and sometimes made it resemble a news interview, bringing in people apart from the panellists to speak about the topic du jour.
As I have written before, he often lost control of the proceedings, saying: “He seems to be trying too hard to differentiate himself from Jones, bringing too many angles to a single episode and generally trying to engineer gotcha situations. It turns to be quite juvenile. One word describes him: callow. It is one that can be applied to many of the ABC’s recent recruits.”
The ABC has put off the decision of appointing a full-time host for the program, preferring to see out the year with Trioli, Speers and Grant taking turns for the remaining few months of its functional year. The ABC normally shuts down regular programs like Q+A in November and brings them back in February the following year.
But it is good that Q+A has been made watchable again – except when Grant hosts, because he is too much in love with the sound of his own voice. However two out of three ain’t bad.