Belfast Telegraph

Is anger at Stephen Nolan's wages the green-eyed monster talking?

 

Following this week's revelations that the Radio Ulster presenter is one of the highest-paid BBC stars, Stephanie Bell talks to some listeners who think he is worth every penny while Daithi McKay says he still has questions to answer.

Stephen Nolan might be among the highest-paid BBC stars in the country, but as controversy continues to rage over his mega-wage some of his most regular listeners have come out fighting for him.

The 43-year-old TV and radio presenter has spent most of the week defending his hefty salary, which the BBC revealed was between £400,000 and £449,999 a year.

However, not everyone feels that Nolan, who works seven days a week presenting his show on Radio Ulster and BBC 5 Live in Manchester, was undeserving of being among the nation's top-paid BBC stars.

Carmel Polland (66), from Castlewellan, Co Down, is a regular caller to the Stephen Nolan radio show.

A mother-of-two, who has two grandchildren, she used to live in Scotland, where she worked as a professional country and western singer.

Carmel was also one of the outspoken stars of Nolan's five-part BBC TV show Radio Face, which attracted controversy when it aired last year.

"If a man works hard for his money, then he deserves anything coming to him," she says.

"I've listened to the debate all week about Nolan's wages and, to me, it is just jealousy.

"Years ago, when I was singing and making a bit of money, I experienced that type of jealously - people don't like to see other people doing well."

Carmel says she admired the presenter for how he has dealt with the controversy this week.

"I've always listened to the Nolan Show and I've heard all the calls this week about Stephen's wage," she adds.

"The man travels all over the place working and what he earns should be his business.

"Shame on the BBC for revealing what he is earning. He works hard and he is young and doing well and I don't think he deserves the flak he has taken this week.

"I admire him and I am glad he can stand up for himself. He is nobody's fool and I think good on him."

Heidi McAlpin (46), is managing editor of the Belfast and Northern Ireland In Your Pocket travel guides and also a regular participant on Nolan's programmes.

Working in the media, Heidi says she wasn't in the least surprised to learn that Nolan is being paid up to £449,999 a year by the BBC.

"I don't blame anyone for accepting any wages - if that's what the employer decides to pay them," she says.

"I think the BBC were caught between a rock and a hard place and were getting a lot of flak about not revealing wages and it is good that they are being accessible.

"If anything, it shows the imbalance between male and female wages."

Heidi adds: "I don't begrudge Stephen Nolan his salary. He works seven days a week and negotiated his own salary in an environment where many people earn a lot more, particularly in the commercial sector, for, arguably, less work.

"If there is a problem with inflated salaries, it's not the fault of the talent, but the 'suits' that decide how to spend the BBC's public purse - not least when it comes to the gender pay-gap.

"But, once you start paying big wages, it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle."

Another regular listener and contributor to the Nolan Show, known on radio as 'George from the Shankill', is Belfast man Gary Lengahan. He is also firmly in the presenter's corner.

Gary (53) believes Nolan earns every penny and says the BBC should instead be questioning the millions they are paying to some other radio and TV presenters.

"Nolan does three jobs and works seven days a week and deserves what he earns," he says.

"The difference between Nolan and some of the others who earn the big money is that Nolan created his show - it is his baby.

"I deliver medication and would visit between 50 and 80 houses a day and it's unbelievable the number of people who listen to his show.

"All the wee pensioners love him.

"He established the show and it's going well and he should be rewarded for that.

"I think the real travesty is what Chris Evans is earning, as I would say the majority of his listeners are Radio 2 listeners anyway and, regardless of who is presenting the show, they would be tuning in anyway.

"Also, Gary Lineker is getting over £1m. The BBC could save a fortune by putting a different retired Premier League player on Match of the Day every month. If they paid each of them £20,000, look at the amount of money they would save.

"Nolan is different, because his show is his own - he created it. I've listened to the debates this week and he held his own.

"Obviously, the BBC thinks he is worth what they are paying him and I do too.

"I listen to him every day and there are some days I am screaming at the radio and other days I am thinking 'Well said'.

"You can't please everyone all of the time."

East Belfast community worker Jim Wilson (64) said that, while he had clashed with Nolan on numerous occasions over the years on his radio show, he praised the presenter for what he described as his "largely positive contribution" to society in Northern Ireland.

"I do believe Stephen Nolan has done a lot of really positive stuff in Northern Ireland and he has achieved a hell of a lot in many areas, especially in health and education," Jim says.

"I think he does a good job. He does open up a lot of debate and I don't always agree with how he deals with it, or with what he deems to be important.

"But, in general, is he worth that money?

"I think you get what you fight for and it is up to whoever pays his wages and how they value him.

"He has come up through the ranks in broadcasting over the years and he is good at what he does."

Daithi McKay: Real scrutiny is still needed

Is Stephen Nolan worth £450,000? The BBC seems to think so. However, in an age of public sector austerity, in which workers earning under £30,000 have been told to tighten their belts and buy a few more tins of supermarket brand beans for the children's supper, why should high-flying BBC presenters be the exception to the rule?

You cannot criticise Stephen Nolan for accepting what he has been offered by the BBC.

The man is clearly a workaholic, doing 9am shows and 10pm shows every day (with a few TV programmes squeezed in for good measure).

However, burning the candle at both ends does not justify his grossly excessive pay packet.

The arguments that have been put forward about "market forces" and competition from the private sector have all been predictably rolled out to defend this excess.

Like it or not, these presenters have to be put in the same frame as our public sector chief executives, MPs and senior civil servants.

Why? Because they are public servants - just like all the rest.

For those of us who have worked in politics, we know only too well the tricks of the trade when it comes to a seasoned performer who wants to avoid being interviewed, or provide an opportunity for a journalist to corner them and get them to slip up and crash live on air: tell the producer you have a meeting to go to at 9.30am, but will go on-air for a short time out of the goodness of your own heart; call into the show that has been hunting you down for the last hour-and-a-half and provide a five-minute monologue before the show is taken over (in the case of the BBC by Sean Coyle or Uncle Hugo).

So, when Nolan refused to be interviewed on Talkback and called into Evening Extra at 6.18pm (during which he acted very aggressively under pressure from Seamus McKee), he reminded me of our most well-seasoned politicians using the same defensive tactics that they had used to avoid him.

His subsequent interview with the TUV leader Jim Allister proved a total damp squib.

The Kells QC landed few blows. To be fair, though, it seemed that he had little notice of his new role and he had no BBC researchers on hand to assist him with putting together a well-informed scrutiny.

The interview was conducted within the framework of the Nolan Show and, while no one should question the integrity of those that work on that team, it was not perceived as being independent.

No one expected to see Allister vs Nolan. Everyone would love to see Nolan vs Crawley, between whom there seems to be little love lost. Talkback, of course, has a team of researchers to prepare for a proper scrutiny and Crawley would have the advantage of having a better sense of the inner workings of the BBC than Jim Allister.

Stephen Nolan, whether he likes it or not, is a public figure and as I'm sure he will accept, detailed public scrutiny of him comes with the territory.

The questions that members of the public would like to see put to Nolan effectively are not about his £450,000 wages, but other earnings he takes home via the BBC.

There's no doubt that some of us who have received the Nolan treatment in the past would have enjoyed seeing him being put in the spotlight himself.

He has been unmerciful in some of his questioning of interviewees, but no one can complain. Those are the rules of the media jungle.

However, if he wants to be seen as someone who is in a position to scrutinise and lecture others, he must be beyond reproach.

He must submit himself to an at-length live scrutiny by another journalist to do that.

To frame his own interview within his own show has only led to more questions - not fewer.

As a public servant, paid for by the taxpayer, he cannot complain about being held to account in the same way that he has held other public figures and public servants under scrutiny during his media career.

We need to see proper scrutiny in this case - that's the least we should expect, given the money we've paid him.

  • Daithi McKay was Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until August 2016

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