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When Robinson didn't get what we expected

A BBC documentary has been accused of going soft on the First Minister. The station said it wasn't an investigation. It should have said what it was, says Don Anderson

That BBC programme about Peter Robinson was little more than a party political broadcast for the DUP." Those sentiments were being voiced the other night among some of the TV audience, probably before the final credits.

As so often happens, the problem, if problem there be, is perhaps one of expectation. I reflect that if you wait long enough, history has a habit of turning perceptions upside down.

I am old enough to remember being a journalist right at the beginning of the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was being run by the old Unionist Party led, for the most part, by landed gentry or the residue of linen mill, engineering and professional aristocracies. Or so it seemed.

The old Unionist Party was a vertically integrated edifice of unionism and, as such, had plenty of working class adherents.

However, it was an age when being working class, or not being at least middle class, was an impediment to advancement within the party.

You could write the history of the last 40 years in terms of the working classes asserting themselves in Northern Ireland and coming of political age. The dominant DUP and Sinn Fein parties of 2011 are not middle class parties. Since the programme was about Peter Robinson and the DUP, I will dwell on observations about that side of the house.

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When expressions of political loyalism emerged in the 1970s, it was in opposition to traditional unionism.

When Ian Paisley challenged and unseated Unionist leader Captain Terence O'Neill (these days only sailors and certain sporty types dare refer to themselves as captain), he did so as a grassroots unionist, aware that for the captains of that bygone world, grass-roots were for running horses over.

These new loyalist political upstarts, with their street demonstrations and links, direct or indirect, to paramilitaries were not accorded the same standing by many as older, or 'respectable' parties.

And this is where we come again to expectations. As a BBC journalist, I had my expectation of what would happen if I were among a loyalist crowd.

I would be loudly identified a BBC male born out of wedlock and that was my cue to skedaddle. This happened to journalists from several broadcasters and newspapers because the loyalist crowd and their leaders believed that we were all biased against them.

Perhaps, in retrospect, we were to a degree, expectations on either side being as they were. How things have changed. The street politicians have become establishment and are respectable. Now what are the expectations?

The BBC, seen as ever so slightly establishment itself, is expected to be nice to the establishment. Hence a soft programme about Robinson, the argument goes.

But that is to ignore the BBC Spotlight programme of about a year ago which nearly brought Peter Robinson down. It was brutal to the Robinson establishment. It was draining for the political establishment on the Hill.

What I wanted from the programme was to know how on earth this politician, Peter Robinson, survived to the point where he is, if anything, stronger than ever - a mere 12 months later.

It is an astounding progression and could only have been managed because of extraordinary abilities.

The programme highlighted precisely those competent attributes and, for that reason, coherently answered that big question. It was therefore a good programme.

The BBC says the programme was not meant to be investigative, but in fact it was. It was the kind of investigation that tiptoed gently through the thicket without annoying participants and maybe because of that, produced some notable new material. It was not the kind of television investigation we are accustomed to - or expect - even though Gerry Fitt, David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams have all received similar treatment.

And so I am back to where I started, which is the management of expectations. The BBC tried in its trailers and introduction to tell us what the programme was. It might have been better if they had told us what it was not.

As I watched the footage of Robinson ambling through the US capital, secure in the knowledge that no Young Turk, such as he and Paisley once were, is snapping at his heels, I was sure he was not humming a song he must have heard in his shipyard constituency.

Called The Foreman's Job, its opening lines are:

The working class can kiss my ass/I got the foreman's job at last

It's a funny old world. That's what the programme was saying.

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