By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
There was an important and eloquent article on Saturday from Denzil McDaniel, highly respected former editor of the Impartial Reporter.
McDaniel describes himself as “a passionate believer in peace and a shared society”.
He summed his article up in a twitter post asking whether Stephen Nolan’s constant use of Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson reflects society here. McDaniel added: “What impact does division in the media have on the election agenda? Who sets the agenda for what people want, what they really, really want?”
He illustrated the article with a photo of Rupert Murdoch whose media outlets have done more to damage democratic society in Britain and the USA in the last thirty-five years than any other platform. As the saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’; that photo of Murdoch illustrates the point perfectly. McDaniel recalled the comment of former Sun editor David Yelland, “without Rupert there would have been no Brexit.”
The media influences people, affects their view of the world, creates stars and villains in people’s minds. For example, the Putin regime’s tight control of state broadcasting meant that until Sunday 60 per cent of Russians, fed on that diet, blamed the USA and EU for provoking Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Of course there’s no comparison between that extreme state control and broadcasting in the west, but that doesn’t take away from the point that media outlets can set the agenda as the British tabloid press did relentlessly for Brexit.
Here, it’s pointless launching personal attacks on Nolan. His BBC bosses are in the business of chasing listeners and ratings – that’s their job. They obviously believe that means emphasising controversy and sensationalism. Unfortunately in the north that also means beating out the rhythm of a tribal war dance far too regularly on air. The result is that Nolan’s programme is irresponsibly unbalanced. As McDaniel writes, its political discourse, “gives a grotesquely disproportionate time to voices such as Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson.” Worse, the BBC, the publicly funded broadcaster, refuses requests to provide statistics on the frequency of their appearances.
It may also be true that senior politicians from the main parties here have declined to go on the programme to be ballyragged by Nolan. Indeed, some parties have boycotted Nolan. So the producers’ choice of contributor has been steadily reducing over the last six years.
Whatever the reasons, the outcome is that the programme spends too much time on a narrow aspect of politics here, namely the protocol, which polls show only a tenth of unionists see as their top priority. To listen to the Nolan show you’d think it was a matter of life and death.
The imbalance is extraordinary. Allister is a one man band. Across the north in the 2017 assembly election the TUV got 2.6 per cent and one seat. He didn’t contest the 2019 Westminster election. His view is that of a minority of a minority. Yet there he is advocating the British government break one international treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement, and dismantle another, the Good Friday Agreement. As for Bryson, the barrack-room lawyer with 167 votes and two convictions to his name, the least said the better. By all means give an airing to such extreme minority views, but point out their minority status and don’t air those views more often than any other unionist view.
It was the BBC’s repeated platforming of Nigel Farage in the years before 2016 (including frequent appearances on Nolan’s Radio Five Live programme) which many contend led to the ‘Ukipification’ of Cameron’s Conservative party. Repetitive broadcasting of Farage’s poisonous line legitimised it. The BBC responds, if at all, by claiming disingenuously that repeatedly interviewing the likes of Allister is necessary for ‘balance’. The evidence shows that the disproportionate airing of his outlandish minority line, legitimising it, has shifted the agenda within unionism to the right. That’s not the BBC’s role.