ABC producers had invited convicted criminal and “terrorist sympathiser” Zaky Mallah to be part of Q&A’s audience on previous occasions, approaching him after he passed the ABC’s screening process without raising any flags.
The admission has emerged in confidential documents the ABC is preparing as part of two reviews into Mallah’s appearance on Q&A last Monday.
The Australian can reveal the public broadcaster has also attempted to shift the blame to SBS for having Mallah on its Insight program in 2012.
It is an excuse the federal government will entirely reject: SBS had additional security measures in place and Insight was pre-recorded. This is a different situation to Q&A, where Mallah was afforded a live and uncontrolled platform to express his views.
The security climate was also different in 2012, prior to the Sydney siege, where Man Haron Monis had originally intended to storm Channel Seven’s studios, before shifting his attention to the Lindt Cafe, which was in full view of Seven’s cameras.
Over the past week, the ABC has refused to answer questions about its contact with Mallah.
But The Australian understands the ABC has admitted Mallah was “registered” on the Q&A database as a potential audience member even though the terror level had been raised following the Sydney siege. Q&A’s audience producer knew of his background and assessed that Mallah did not raise security concerns.
The Communications Department was told the ABC has had a lot of interaction with Mallah; they said he had been invited by ABC producers to be part of the audience on previous occasions. He had also, unsuccessfully, applied to be a panellist.
One invitation extended to Mallah was for a terror-themed Q&A in western Sydney, with Attorney-General George Brandis as the sole guest.
The government’s investigation will also look into why Mallah was selected to ask a question during the live broadcast without any AFP or NSW Police advice.
While ABC had invited Mallah to be a member of their audience in the past, he was not on the email distribution list for last Monday’s Q&A. He attended the show with a friend. On June 18, the audience producer emailed Mallah and his friend to finalise their appearance.
When ABC representatives have a discussion with the Communications Department today, they will be asked whether they made the right call.
They are also likely to be asked for some basic details regarding the number of complaints they have received — information they have refused to provide to the government.
One option that could result from the Q&A reviews would be to move it from the television division to the news and current affairs department, where it would have a greater requirement for impartiality, balance and accuracy than an entertainment program.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday fought accusations from Insiders host Barrie Cassidy that the security threat from Mallah on Q&A was no greater than if he had been in a public place.
Businessman Graham Rich was in the Q&A audience when Mallah asked his inflammatory question. “I was next to this person (Mallah) waiting to enter the theatre.
“A potentially irrational man was loose and the ABC allowed that to occur without giving me a choice to absent myself,” Mr Rich said.
“The ABC failed in its duty of care in that they didn’t say we need to alert you to the fact that there are people who will be asking questions who have been convicted of serious criminal offences involving a threat of violence and you should feel welcome to absent yourself.”
Before Q&A started, Mr Rich said the audience was “coached” or encouraged to clap immediately if they agreed with a sentiment. “When the coaching of the audience was occurring, the executive producer overtly identified Zaky Mallah and the order that he would ask his question, as he did all of the chosen questioners,” he said.
“The program is meant to be live and spontaneous but that was not so much the case, as it was an orchestrated program.”
But former ABC managing director and chairman David Hill mounted a strong defence of the ABC yesterday, saying government frontbencher Steven Ciobo’s on-air performance was outrageous and the ABC should not have apologised.
“If the Minister (Mr Ciobo) had not responded in such a hostile fashion to Mallah, if the Minister not made that offensive suggestion that he be thrown out of the country, then Mallah wouldn’t have come back with the comment that offended everybody,” Mr Hill told The Australian.
“Everybody finds what Mallah said offensive, and this is another reason we should be thankful of the ABC: if he is a dangerous person then the ABC is doing us a favour by pointing that out.”
Mr Hill said he had no confidence in the government’s inquiry because comments from Mr Turnbull and Tony Abbott indicated that it wouldn’t be impartial.