Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why are 'spokesmen' with no mandate like Winston Irvine and Jamie Bryson allowed on the BBC as if they were elected representatives?

Hijacking the airwaves - the self-appointed mouthpieces who have got above their station

PUP man Winston Irvine
PUP man Winston Irvine
Jamie Bryson
Catherine Seeley

Those people who write the BBC's Producers' Guidelines ought to amend the corporation's editorial, legal and ethical road-map for their journalists with the 'Malteser Test'.

It was coined by one of the brightest stars in the Beeb's firmament – none other than Stephen Nolan. He minted the phrase during an interview with Jamie Bryson, the face of the loyalist flag protest movement, when the unrest over Belfast City Council's restrictions on flying the Union flag was at its most intense in early-2012.

Nolan interrupted Bryson's broadsides against nationalists, the Alliance Party, the police and the Government with a factual observation. He pointed out live on his morning radio show that Bryson did not have an electoral mandate.

In fact, Nolan noted, with bang-on-the-money accuracy, that there were more "chocolates in a bag of Maltesers" than votes Bryson had received in a previous local election. The Big Man of BBC Northern Ireland managed – in one memorable put-down soundbite – to place Bryson's influence in some perspective.

That same sense of perspective should have been applied on Radio Ulster yesterday morning, when the PUP's Winston 'Winky' Irvine was invited on to comment live on the disgraceful and shameful intimidation of a young teacher at a north Belfast secondary school just because she happens to be a member of Sinn Fein.

Irvine – alleged by a BBC Spotlight programme last year to be a member of the UVF – told the show that, while intimidation was never justifiable, parents' concerns about the teacher, Catherine Seeley, were legitimate and should be heard.

The first question that came to mind listening to this was: in what way was the "community" opinion Irvine proposed to represent gauged, tested, or analysed over this controversy?

Another query that struck home was: how do we know you represent all of public opinion in that district? There was also the absence of another question: how many votes did you receive from the electorate? Of course, as a party, Sinn Fein bends and twists both truth and history. From its leader, who denies that he was ever in the IRA (even though, by being at the top of that organisation, he managed to steer it out of the armed struggle cul-de-sac) down to its rank-and-file, Sinn Fein lives in a weird state of collective denial.

They try to recast 35-plus years of murder, mayhem and sabotage as somehow a more radical form of civil rights struggle, rather than what it really was – the attempted armed destruction of the Northern Ireland state, which their political representatives now happen to help run.

Yet, as a professional and a teacher, the unfortunate Catherine Seeley would have to abide by the rules of her job and teach history in a fair, objective manner. And it is an absolute scandal that the 25-year-old has been hounded from her job by cowardly intimidation, mostly by online bullies.

When I worked in the Irish News in those dark days at the very end of the 1980s and early-1990s, there was a sensible and cast-iron editorial "golden rule" about the hierarchy of political reaction.

In those days, the SDLP was still the bigger nationalist party, so its comments – on issues ranging from murders to job losses – came first. Naturally, Sinn Fein's reaction came next, followed by Alliance, then the unionists and, finally (if at all), the smaller parties, like the Workers Party and the IRSP.

These days, of course, Sinn Fein (correctly) comes first in this hierarchy of coverage in the nationalist-orientated Press, given its pre-eminent position within northern nationalism, with the SDLP after them and then the other parties. It was – is – a proper political perspective based on electoral representation at the ballot box.

There are times, of course, when the marginal and often extreme voices in society here need to be amplified and heard. There are occasions, for instance, when I have to interview and report the political position of republican dissidents, although this would be on an infrequent basis in The Guardian and The Observer.

However, I try as best as possible to keep that critical word "perspective" when reporting on the words and communiques of the new IRA, ONH or Continuity IRA. A balanced rider to put in should always be that the majority of nationalists support Sinn Fein and its peace strategy – even though the dissident threat is still real and the anti-ceasefire republican groups have made some in-roads in terms of support among socially alienated youth.

So perspective at all times when dealing with representatives from loyalist paramilitarism, who claim to be the authentic voices of their community. Yes, they do not exist in a vacuum and, as recent mass rallies to commemorate the 1912 Home Rule crisis show, they do have some support. Yet the ballot box does not lie and the votes that their political allies receive are dwarfed by the larger unionist parties.

When giving these individuals air-time, BBC producers should remember the 'Malteser Test'.

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