BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan
BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan

A lot of people have been talking about the Nolan shows, both on radio and on television, with many asking if the programmes are a force for good or for bad.

Is his adversarial style appropriate in a post-conflict society which is in search of a modus vivendi where all citizens can feel cherished?

In some ways it is.

Nolan has held the powerful to account on many’s an occasion and his coverage of the RHI debacle was ground-breaking.

However, there is an increasingly corrosive, destructive side to the Nolan shows on both TV and on radio that make the chances of moving this society forward more difficult.

The people most invited to appear on the show seem to be Good Friday Agreement dissidents.

Given the omnipresence of the trio across Nolan’s shows and growing public concern about the perceived harm his shows are having on the ongoing search for political and cultural compromise here, last Friday, I asked the BBC Press Office in Belfast to tell me how often Jim Allister, Jamie Bryson and Nelson McCausland were on Nolan’s show over the past three months, as well as the number of appearances by Linda Ervine (Turas) and Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin (Conradh na Gaeilge) in that same period.
(As Linda was recently on Nolan’s TV show, I asked if she had been specifically asked to appear on the show although she wasn’t asked a question.)

I got a reply from the press office saying that I was looking for a lot of information and that it would take some time to get all the information together but that they would try to get the information to me this week.

Yesterday, I sent them a gentle reminder about my request, three working days after I sent it. I opened the e-mail with baited breath, ready to go through the spreadsheet with a fine tooth comb.

Instead, this is the reply I got to my request for statistics:

“We include a range of contributors in our programmes and seek to reflect diverse views and opinions. Audience involvement further enhances this mix and assists our ambition to provide an inclusive forum for discussion and debate.”

No figures, nada but the blandest of statements from the Planet Bland to which the only possible reply would be:

No

But then…

In his interview with Brian Walker this morning, a week after I sent my own request to the BBC, he berated the Professor of Politics for suggesting that more “moderate voices” should be heard on the radio programmes.

(Moderate is a word I have always disliked as moderation is in the eye of the holder. I would have preferred the term “informed” as informed discussion is what radio should be about; uninformed discussion should confine itself to the pub and the street corner).

Prof Walker asked Nolan how often Jim Allister had been on the Nolan radio show over the past two weeks to which the publicly-funded broadcaster replied: “I simply don’t know. You can check it out. It’s all public.”

Therefore, with Nolan telling listeners to “the biggest show in the country” that the figures are in the public domain, I re-submitted my request for information.

The response was this:

“Sorry but our line would still stand. If it’s helpful, the past 30 day’s broadcasts are available on BBC iPlayer Radio.”

So here is one of many questions which remain. Why is the BBC so coy about telling the licence fee-payer how many times Nelson McCausland, Jamie Bryson and, in particular, Jim Allister have been on the Nolan shows if the figure, as Nolan told us today, is “all public.”

Is the information public or not? Hopefully we’ll find out in the very near future.

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