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In politics, you expect your opponents to massage the truth... I don’t expect it of BBC

Corporation’s lack of balance over housing debate is disappointing and helps fuel division

By Nelson McCausland

Published 29/09/2016

Gerry Carroll sparked a housing debate following claims in the Assembly. File image
Gerry Carroll sparked a housing debate following claims in the Assembly. File image

During an Assembly debate on Monday, September 12 about the “social housing selection scheme”, Gerry Carroll, the People Before Profit MLA for West Belfast, deviated from the central issue and turned his attention to social housing waiting lists in north Belfast.

He was very specific and claimed that “75% of the people on the housing waiting list in north Belfast and experiencing severe housing stress are from the nationalist community”.

Later in the debate, my party colleague, William Humphrey MLA, corrected this and pointed out that across the constituency the number of Protestants and the number of Roman Catholics on the waiting list are roughly the same.

On the Friday morning, the Radio Ulster Talkback programme decided to follow up on this debate and I was invited, along with Gerry Carroll, to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, he was unable to take part that day and it was rescheduled for the Monday.

Again, he was unable to take part and so People Before Profit fielded a party worker instead. It was a three-way discussion, with the third participant being from Sinn Fein.

There is an old saying that “there are none so blind as those who will not see”, which may be derived from Jeremiah 5:21, and it certainly applies in this matter.

As regards Radio Ulster, the programme started with the focus entirely on the figures claimed by Gerry Carroll. There was no mention of the fact that a DUP MLA had quoted a very different figure. So, two MLAs quote figures in an Assembly debate and Talkback, in preparing for the programme, wasn’t even aware of one of those figures.

In fact, when I asked the presenter, William Crawley, about the second figure, he replied: “I don’t have that before me. Why don’t you quote that figure?” That is simply not good enough.

We are entitled to expect the British Broadcasting Corporation to be a “balanced” broadcasting corporation.

When I challenged the presenter as to why they based their programme around one claim, while ignoring the contrary claim, he replied that the figure quoted by my party colleague, “wouldn’t be a controversy, would it?”

So, it seems that, in this case, Radio Ulster made balance and fairness subservient to creating controversy.

The nationalist and republican narrative is erroneous and yet it has been repeated so often that it has become embedded in any consideration of housing in the North Belfast constituency and it has had a poisonous effect on community relationships.

In a constituency that was deeply affected by the Troubles and a constituency where there are more peacelines than any other, the last thing we need is a fictional narrative that fuels division, anger, resentment and dispute.

In that regard, Radio Ulster should pay particular regard to its obligation to fairness. I didn’t particularly mind the fact that I was on one side of a debate with two political opponents on the other side, but I was deeply disappointed by the way that the BBC framed the debate.

For years, nationalist and republican politicians have peddled the myth that the demand for social housing in north Belfast is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. It was only in more recent times that the truth emerged and that was after I had started to interrogate these claims.

It turned out that they were quoting figures for just part of the constituency — a part which is predominantly nationalist — and ignoring the rest of it.

Indeed, when we managed to get to the bottom of it all, the Housing Executive acknowledged that across the constituency the breakdown of people on the social housing waiting list who had designated as Protestant or Roman Catholic was 51% Protestant and 49% Roman Catholic, while for those in housing stress it was 48% Protestant and 52% Roman Catholic.

I am not surprised when nationalist propagandists massage the figures to manufacture a political grievance, but I was disappointed that the BBC did not do a better and balanced job on this issue.

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