The Trouble with Nolan

In the audience warm-up at last night’s Stephen Nolan hosted EU Referendum “Debate,” May McFettridge (AKA John Linehan) asked the audience “who’s in and who’s out?”.  One section of the audience shouted, “Out”.  May’s response was, “Aye, Pradistants.”

This programme had been trailed as Northern Ireland’s “big” EU Referendum TV debate. Trouble is it wasn’t a debate and the biggest thing about it – as usual – was Nolan.  The “biggest show in the country” hijacked an opportunity to have an important debate about an important issue. In usual Nolan-team fashion we heard no arguments – merely people shouting over each other.  Dan Hannan, one of the UK’s most skilled political orators and public intellectuals, was reduced to pleading with Nolan to get the opportunity for one or two rebuttals.

The May McFettridge audience ‘warm-up’ was appropriate because, to an extent, what came after her was little different. Nolan has developed a Northern Irish flavoured format of TV and radio show that exists to reflect back at us everything that is wrong with the Northern Ireland political discourse, at the same time as building the host of the “biggest show in the country’s” brand.

At the heart of the brand is something that’s rooted firmly in the debased tribal squabble that is Northern Ireland. No discussion is ever given the opportunity to move much beyond the parochial. Debates get fixated on the trivial and the tiny. There are constant references to Nolan’s girth and food addiction. Guests are there merely to amuse or adorn Nolan’s presence. His interviewing style can be hectoring if people get out of order, or patronising, if they attempt to outshine him. The format contrived by the show is highly controlling. Long-form argument development rarely gets a chance, stymied by unrelenting diversionary questioning or pulling in audience members designed to ruin a train of thought.

Last night was a case in point. I was asked to take part weeks ago but never really knew what role I was supposed to play. At no point was I given the impression that the green room would be packed with people. In the end I managed to get approximately 2.5 sentences out before I was interrupted by Alastair Campbell.

I’m not complaining, I get my fair share of media. I’m not an elected representative. It’s flattering that anyone wants to hear my opinion. But my experience last night was no different from others, I’m sure, who had been summoned to sit on the front row of the audience like contributor trinkets. Tom Kelly, who was sitting beside me, has different views to me on EU membership, but he also got no opportunity to make much of a point. Irwin Armstrong spoke, but I can’t even recall what he said.

Meanwhile the panellists simply stayed quiet or, in the case of Claire Hanna and Sammy Wilson, just kept talking regardless of who else was going at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having a pop at the panellists. I felt genuinely sorry for Dan Hannan who had cancelled a debate in Chipping Norton to attend last night’s Nolan mini-circus. No, I’m having a go at BBC NI for allowing these public debacles to continue.

Simply put, it’s not acceptable. No one team has the right to define, to the extent that the Nolan team does, how our political discourse should be conducted. The approach is, fundamentally, anti-intellectual. That might sound like a very middle-class thing to suggest, but I’m pretty sure I’m correct.

The approach is to define our politics based on a Northern Irish version of paddywackery. Ours is a tribal society but, on Nolan anchored TV programming, all we get is a reworking of the same old parochial nonsense with different actors. And the actors get debased in the process. Myself included. And sometimes the actors are so out of context (like Dan Hannan on last night’s show) it makes us seem even worse than we really are. More crazy. More tribal.

The great pity is that there is a real debate, outside of the confines of our parochialism, to be had. This was well illustrated last week on The View. Panellists debated the issue and the audience was the better for it.

This morning my 87-year-old mother called me to discuss last night’s show. I think her view reflects that of most people who watched. At the end of the programme she was no wiser. She lost all understanding of who was arguing what side of the argument. She wasn’t sure who was in or out. She had no sense of the purpose of the programme. It didn’t inform. It didn’t entertain. It merely was excruciating.

I have attended many EU debates over the last few months. I also organised one of the largest business focused debates in early April. None of these debates was perfect – even my own! But all gave the opportunity to people to debate. I watched Dan Hannan debate in London at The Spectator. I watched his debate against Eddie Izzard. He’s a compelling speaker. I’ve also heard fabulous speakers on the remain side (with whom I vehemently disagree), such as Ken Clarke.

In every instance they are given the opportunity to speak. To articulate a view. To build some emotional engagement. But think of last night’s debate. We had one hour. We had 4 panellists. We had audience questions. We had audience interventions. We had around a dozen people on the front row each with their own perspectives.  We had a BBC pundit. The result was that everyone was disappointed – me, my mother, the studio audience, the panellists, the viewing audience.

And this happens time and time again. The only people not disappointed, it would appear, are the Nolan Show production team.

Northern Ireland has the opportunity to pull itself out of the tribal swamp. But in order to do so there’s a moral duty on all our parts to raise our game. As a society we need to be intellectually challenged. We need to hear wonderful orators like Dan Hannan building an argument – even if it is to be challenged and rebutted.  But our broadcasters – that we pay for – have a duty of care to communicate effectively and coherently and to shine a light on our societal inadequacies rather than take them for granted or ride on their coat-tails.

Free market libertarian. Businessman. Small government advocate. Former Vice-Chair, Conservative Party in NI. Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs. Former Regional Chair, Business for Britain (the business voice of VoteLeave).