Who is the First Minister of Northern Ireland — Peter Robinson or Stephen Nolan? Where is the seat of political power — Parliament Buildings, Stormont or Nolan’s BBC studio in Ormeau Avenue?
I ask these questions after the controversy over the lack of funding to rehouse threatened police officers and the manner in which it was played out on Nolan’s programme for much of last week.
Stephen Nolan has good reason to congratulate himself and his “people power” listeners for persuading the Stormont Executive to reach agreement on the funding issue. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of the issue to such an extent that the politicians at Stormont must feel humiliated.
I appreciate that Nolan has an exceptional talent to communicate with the public, to converse with ordinary people and to draw out their concerns.
He has Stormont and many other publicly-funded bodies running scared of having their inadequacies and failings exposed on his show.
However, he has a tendency to engage in emotion-charged comment. At one point last Thursday he launched into an unchallenged soliloquy during which he turned the argument over the SPED funding into a wider one about the very future of the Stormont Executive.
Could it ever be made to work, he asked? Its finances were in a mess. “And let’s not forget education — look at the state that’s in,” he asserted, though what the latter had to do with funding police officer rehousing was not explained.
It was an extraordinary piece of editorialising.
If, say, John Humphries or Andrew Marr had launched into such a dismissive ridicule of the political process at Westminster or of government ministers, would not questions have been asked of the BBC?
In the context of serious news and current affairs coverage, I think there are real dangers in this style of instantaneous, confrontational broadcasting, particularly in Northern Ireland.
The BBC cannot behave like an independent newspaper. It is paid for by the licence fees of the general population and as such must adhere to stricter standards because of its privileged, unique position in our society.
People have a right to challenge authority if it is wrong but radio phone-in criticism is riddled with superficiality and ignorance of the real issues involved.
The reality of life is that there are not instant answers to every problem nor can police officers or public servants always be expected to drop everything at a moment’s notice and answer to the BBC.
I may be in a minority of one but I still continue to ask how aspects of the Nolan show fit into the BBC’s broadcasting charter and its much-cherished and long-protected reputation for objectivity and balance.
And I worry that the BBC’s usually high standards are in danger of being sacrificed at the altar of audience ratings.
That said, congratulations to Stephen Nolan in winning the battle for compensation for the police officers last week.
I may not like his style of broadcasting but I recognise that it does get results. If the Stormont Executive does not wake up and smell the coffee soon, his studio in Royal Avenue will become the new seat of power.