Belfast Telegraph

Happy birthday BBC Spotlight, a truly shining example of TV journalism

Fortieth birthday bashes are always a time of trepidation. Imagine the stress making sure the invites are out, the canapes are ordered. Or the creep of existential bleakness as people blandly reassure you that it's "just a number", or "life begins at".

And then contemplate, with horror, being asked to put together a slide-show of your own life for all the guests. And then contemplate the guests' horror, and then go back to bed and bury your head in the duvet for another 40 years.

Okay, so in TV land, where every conceivable milestone is an opportunity to self-mythologise, it's completely different (there's no canapes, for starters).

But, really, on the week of another blacker anniversary, Spotlight's 40th was a well-deserved 60-minute 'selfie' from BBC Northern Ireland's flagship (for which read 'only') oasis of TV investigative journalism. And as with most lives well lived, the slide-show wasn't actually half bad.

It all began to whacky 70s credits and theme tune in October 1973. For sheer longevity, if not always content, Spotlight has since run as a televisual analogue to our bloody, shabby and bizarre recent history.

I'd forgotten how many subsequent big cats of the national newsroom had cut their teeth on Spotlight. The likes of Jeremy 'Paxo' Paxman, Gavin Esler and Alex Thompson may have blooded themselves in preparation for their 'grown-up' careers behind a newsdesk in London, but the interesting thing was just how animated they all were about their time spent pounding the streets here.

But it hasn't always been about grainy footage of Saracens on rubble-strewn streets, badly dubbed Sinn Feiners, or secret meetings with INLA leaders.

It's now dark political chicanery and financial irregularity, or as political commentator Newton Emerson put it, they'd require fewer paramilitary experts and more accountants to get to the heart of the matter these days. And with a programme that's become so etched into our televisual landscape, everybody has their fave Spotlight moment.

My own? Ooh, too many to mention. Oh, go on then.

Kirk McCambleywamnblyramley and Iris-gate was a cracking exposé and an excruciating interview. Or how about the Red Sky affair, wherein a Minister of State kept his job only because the state happened to be Northern Ireland.

Exposing Gerry Kelly and Brian Keenan as IRA top brass following the Canary Wharf bombings was bold. And who can forget the council junket to Spain where Fred 'Kurt' Cobain awkwardly admitted to having taken a freebie to Barcelona at ratepayers' expense.

But perhaps best of all was the nuclear bomb one. Where the Spotlight team played out a scenario where population centres such as Coleraine, Ballyclare, Crossgar, Aughnacloy and Eniskillen posed a strategic threat to the Soviets... for "reasons uncertain".

In short, it wasn't the marquee names they wheeled out for this anniversary that made you realise the impact of Spotlight, it was the programmes themselves, the sheer variety, the important journalism that went on in extraordinary circumstances and a sense of fearlessness that marked its ethos.

Like most investigative journalism, however, it may not have directly affected change in our society over the decades, but it's always been there; the awkward friend who doesn't mind asking those questions to all those people we'd love to, but daren't.

Here's to another 40 years of bothering power, p***ks and politicians... and maybe a special on uncovering the al-Qaida threat in Magherafelt.

Belfast Telegraph

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