Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Nolan can hold his own when shoe is on the other foot

By Eilis O'Hanlon

"Today the tables are turned," purred Jim Allister, relishing his chance to play inquisitor rather than victim for once.

He was on Radio Ulster to interview Stephen Nolan on the BBC presenter's morning show after the revelation that Nolan is among the top 10 highest earners on the BBC nationwide.

"You've always wanted to be me," Nolan ribbed the former QC. "What does it feel like to be sitting in my seat?"

Old habits die hard.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader reminded him firmly that he was there to ask, not answer, questions.

Nolan came to the studio well-prepared, but then he always is, and he's known this moment was coming for some time.

Nor, as he stated right at the start of the interview, had he ever raised objections to the BBC revealing that he earns between £400,000 and £450,000 a year.

That, he declared, was entirely a matter for it.

Putting himself up for a cross-examination by a formidable barrister was his way of showing he had nothing to hide.

But was he embarrassed or proud about earning so much? That's what Allister wanted to know. It was a clever question, because Nolan is entitled to take satisfaction in reaching a stage in his career where his services are valued so highly.

On the other hand, saying it as bluntly as that could come across as arrogant.

He paused and took his time to answer.

In the end, he drew a distinction between what he's paid and what he's "worth".

His wages were merely a reflection of the value placed on him by the BBC: "They decide what they're going to pay you, I don't."

That's the sort of nitpicking distinction which Nolan would mercilessly dissect if a politician on his show dared to try such a ruse. However, Allister got bogged down in detail, fishing to know the exact amount of Nolan's salary, and how it broke down between Radio Ulster, Five Live and BBC Northern Ireland.

If Allister wanted to make Nolan sound shifty by claiming that the BBC wouldn't let him answer, while setting himself up every morning as the "champion of transparency", it didn't really work.

The ballpark figure was information enough. The tussle over his exact employment status veered off down a cul-de-sac of how much Nolan was also costing the BBC, and by extension license fee payers, in national insurance and pension contributions.

Allister failed to read the signs when Nolan warned him that he was "barking up the wrong tree", though he did get quite testy when Allister - "facetiously", as he admitted - accused him of only working a few hours each day.

"Are you going to be fair?" he demanded.

"As fair as you taught me to be when you interviewed me," Allister replied with forgiveable pleasure.

He was on stronger ground when asking Nolan how he felt about earning 27 times more than a worker on the so-called living wage, and 16 times more than the national average.

The BBC presenter conceded that nurses and teachers played more important roles than him, adding: "I'm lucky enough that the job I'm doing pays the money I get." It's probably what his fans would expect him to say.

He has a huge personality, and the instincts of a tenacious Jack Russell as he nips the ankles of the bossy and powerful, but he never comes across as the sort of unpleasant bighead who thinks he's better than anyone else or that the world owes him a living.

Some people will earn gargantuan sums of money. The most we can ask is that they have the humility to acknowledge their good fortune.

Nolan seems to fall into that category. He did put on the poor mouth a bit as he talked about being born on the Ballygomartin Road without a silver spoon in his mouth - violins were practically playing in the background - but he does work hard, seven days a week.

As a result, he came across well. The fact that he was willing to put himself through the ordeal, uncomfortable though it must have been, demonstrated again his readiness to go the extra mile for the sake of the show.

Whether it's his weight or his wealth, he puts himself in the firing line.

Politicians have every right to savour the sight of their arch nemesis wriggling under the spotlight. He's done the same thing to them often enough. It may prove more awkward in the coming weeks when every caller who's getting the worse of an exchange plays dirty by throwing Nolan's salary back in his face.

How he handles that will be the real test, but so far he's come through a difficult week relatively unscathed. Jim Allister did a creditable day's work, but Stephen Nolan's job is safe for now.

Belfast Telegraph

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