BBC coverage of RHI created more heat than light - maybe we should order an inquiry into it as well
The Renewable Heat Incentive report isn’t in yet, but don’t rule out it clearing Foster, writes Nelson McCausland
The end of the year is a time to look back and reflect, and while Brexit has been the biggest news story at a national level throughout the year, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has been there in the Northern Ireland news for most of the time.
Twelve months ago RHI dominated the local news day after day.
There was a BBC Spotlight programme in December 2016 and from then on, for several months, the coverage by the BBC was relentless.
Newspapers and other media reported the story, but the BBC was at the forefront.
The Nolan Show on Radio Ulster took a particular interest and, day after day, there was always a snippet of information or an innuendo.
It went on for weeks on end, but there was more heat than light and some radio phone-in programmes started to resemble a lynch mob.
The focus was almost entirely on Arlene Foster as the former Minister of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — the department that had overseen the scheme.
The focus was also on the party of which she was by then the leader. Many people would have buckled under the pressure, but she showed a resilience that was impressive.
Naturally, other parties, both nationalist and unionist, saw the opportunity to inflict damage on the DUP.
Sinn Fein in particular latched on to it and used it as justification for collapsing the Assembly and forcing an election.
Sinn Fein made it a brutal campaign, with many surreal moments. I can remember well Gerry Kelly speaking at the launch of a billboard and telling us that RHI should stand for “Respect, Honesty and Integrity” — a comment that provoked thoughts of the Northern Bank, ‘Slab’ Murphy and diesel laundering.
In the end it was a bad election for unionism and, in what was a perfect storm, Sinn Fein ran the DUP a very close second.
This was a remarkable achievement for the party, but it could not have done it without the RHI story and it owed the BBC a debt of gratitude.
However, much has happened since then, including a unionist resurgence in the general election and a new influence for the DUP in Westminster. This has been a remarkable year.
It took some time to get the public inquiry into RHI established and it is still at an early stage, but already Patrick Coghlin and his team have heard evidence from civil servants and the consultants who were employed by DETI to work on the scheme.
So far we have learned that the consultants’ report was flawed and failed to identify the core problem with the scheme.
We have also learned that the civil servants who received the consultants’ report did not identify the flaws in it and did not alert the minister.
Indeed, a director of the consultancy firm told the inquiry that his company had been “no more expert” in the area of renewable heat in 2011 than officials in DETI. So, if they were “no more expert”, why were they employed to produce a report?
As yet, we have only part of the picture, but it is a very different picture from that presented by the BBC at the start of the year.
As one commentator expressed it, albeit ironically: “It is still early days at the RHI Inquiry but already it is raising an alarming possibility — Arlene Foster is innocent.”
Yes, it is still “early days”, and we must wait for the inquiry to complete its task, but the lynch mob has been replaced by due process. The story that is emerging is very different from the story that flooded the airwaves last year and very different from the one that afforded Sinn Fein the cover for collapsing the Assembly.
We needed an inquiry into the RHI scheme so that we can learn the lessons, and I look forward to its report.
Perhaps, then, we might also need an inquiry into the BBC.