In praise of Nolan: “discussing controversial issues in a divided society will be – controversial…”

As Mark Davenport (BBC Northern Ireland political editor) and David Blevins (Sky News)  can both attest, being the subject of abuse on Twitter is not something reserved exclusively for Stephen Nolan. (David Blevins comments on his abuse here).

And whilst all 3 are excellent journalists – the level of abuse directed at Stephen Nolan places him in a category all of it’s own.  For example, in July 2021, Nolan received a 5 figure court settlement for abuse on Twitter. The previous day he received a six figure sum for worse twitter abuse. (Nolan had  the kindness of spirit to not publicly reveal the identity of either culprit.)

Details of settlements here.

But rightly, not all abuse reaches the required threshold to end up before the courts and the importance of free speech ensures that those who take against journalists (or others) in the public domain have considerable room for manoeuvre – and so it should be.

As someone, with a track record of getting upset with the BBC, I find myself in the strange position of leaping to the BBC’s defence and specifically to the defence of Stephen Nolan on Twitter – for what are arguably spurious charges.

The main charge against Nolan and specifically his excellent morning Nolan Show, appears to be that he invites the wrong type of person on to the programme for him to argue the bit out with. In particular, objections are raised about the regular appearances of Jamie Bryson(Loyalist commentator) and Jim Allister (TUV Leader).

The argument goes, that because the pair don’t get many votes (and in the case of Bryson exactly none) they should not be on his show so often, thereby suggesting that some sort of mathemtacical formula should be applied to election results by Nolan to decide who should appear on his show – and how often they should appear.

Nolan’s editorial judgement is deemed by his critics to be flawed at least in part because he is accused by some of being biased.  Perhaps the most generous inteprepation of this view is that it is based on a misunderstanding, namely that if Nolan invites guests or callers to express views which are  ‘hardline’, or when he plays devil’s advocate that he must himself, share those views.

A less generous interpretation is that he is assumed to be biased (mainly by Nationalists) because he is not just a ‘themmun’  but a very loud outspoken ‘themmun’.

What I think a lot (though not all) of Nolan’s fiercest critics would concede, is that he is an excellent interviewer, as was illustrated on Wednesday’s Nolan Show(18th May 2022), when he interviewed, Ben Lowry, Editor of the Newsletter. Nolan, neatly summarised the previous day’s main event in Westminster(in which Liz Truss presented her controversial proposals) and put it to Lowry that the British were pushing the Protocol into the long grass and rather than committing themselves to getting rid of it – were rather committing themselves to getting it to work.

Lowry reluctantly agreed. Even this excellent interview attracted criticism on Twitter from those obviously missing the considerable resignation and exasperation in Lowry’s voice with how events were unfolding – when he was presented with Nolan’s well argued analysis.

You can listen to the interview here at 27 minutes on the Nolan Show.

As a Nationalist in favour of the Protocol in principle, enabling as it does, the least worst (in my opinion) of the two available options, the sea border rather than the land border, I welcome hearing what those who are leading the protests against the Protocol have to say.

These are the spokesmen for the very people the British Government are referring to when they speak of the “Loyalist Communities” in relation to the protests against the Protocol and if Nolan interviews them and subjects their opinions to public airing and scrutiny – then good on him.

Let’s have more of this rather than less.

As a sometimes Sinn Fein voter, I want Sinn Fein, to answer the awkward questions that need answering and not hide behind playing the victim’s card by suggesting they are being singled out for special treatment. It is extremely poor that the two largest Northern parties (SF and the DUP) have at various times taken to boycotting Nolan, for what I think in all fairness can be best explained as their dislike of being asked awkward questions.  And especially their dislike of having those awkward questions repeated if they are not answered to Nolan’s satisfaction –  just as they should be.

Amongst all the noise surrounding whether the Nolan show reflects the divide in the society it is broadcasting to or actually deepens that divide the Irish Times, decided to stick it’s considerable oar into the debate.

In a piece which bore some of  the characteristics of the famous Mark Anthony speech at Caesar’s funeral it stopped short of directly accusing Nolan of bias but listed all those who had expressed negative opinions about him.

Irish Times Article: “Critics say amount of airtime given by Stephen Nolan to some unionists stirs division “

But what was perhaps most disappointing about the IT article was that it did not emphasise the considerable editorial judgement of Stephen Nolan in navigating what is the minefield of Northern politics. Nor did it consider the difficulties of balancing the radically different opinions  of guests on the shows and the opinions  of  those who ring in whilst also trying to cover the pressing issues of the day in a deeply divided society.

And while we would not expect even the faintest whiff of journalistic solidarity we might  expect some journalistic appreciation of the complexities of both the required editorial judgements and of Northern politics – especially from the IT’s Northern Correspondent, Seanin Graham.

What Nolan’s critics seem to be missing is that the BBC trusts Stephen Nolan to exercise his editorial judgement to decide which guests he invites on his show and what questions he asks those guests. They trust him to balance his show to reflect not only what the current news stories are but to keep the public’s attention whilst allowing them to have their say – even when their opinions are ‘hardline’.

And they trust him because he is excellent at his job.

The public it seems are voting with their ears and tuning in to hear the Nolan Show, making it the most popular programme on Radio Ulster.  With the BBC backing him all the way, it seems Stephen Nolan will resist his critics and the begrudgers who seem unable or unwilling to grasp that discussing controversial issues in a divided society will be – controversial – and that those who they deem unsuitable or unappealing to listen to, are in many cases, the very people whose views need to be heard and challenged.

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