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.

  • Croiteir

    Correct, no one could make an argument, it suits those who debate by tag line however. Nolan is rubbish at this stuff. Wee Sammy gave his usual red faced angry man act, Alister Campbell was his usual bullying self, nice to see the guy from the audience getting him bang to rights, Hannan was totally sidelined as he would not be used to this “debate”, and Claire Hanna was her usual fatuous self, making whataboutery remarks that had very little connection with the subject being shouted.

  • Gerry Lynch

    I agree with your frustration with Nolan, but it’s not unique to one presenter or Northern Ireland. US TV and political culture nowadays is far worse (did you watch any of the GOP Primary debates?) As for GB, I made a rare decision to watch a few editions of Question Time because of the referendum. The one from Folkestone last week with Eddie Izzard, Farage, etc. was disgraceful – all the panelists bar Benn and much of the audience on either side. There were despairing undecided voters trying to ask sensible questions and being shoted down by Izzard, Farage or other members of the audience before they could get half a sentence out.

    We’ll see where all this goes for the West over the next decade or so, but part of the problem is that social media and page impression metrics make it too easy to see what content generates “engagement” – and it’s usually hysterical clickbait. Nolan is just the audio-visual equivalent.

  • Declan Doyle

    Nolan has either made a conscious decision or his production team has, to make him centre of every debate even if the subject matter is tossed aside as a result. There was absolutely no organisation or even a pretense that show had the issues foremost in its creative process. Heckling, shouting and plain bad manners are the defining characteristics of Nolan and his shows. He claims to ask the hard questions to make politicians accountable etc. Nonsense, nothing could be further from the truth. The hard questions have equally hard answers which take time to debate and explain. It is clearly beyond Nolan’s capacity and the capacity of his team to accommodate an informed intelligent debate.

  • Myreve Chambers

    Nolan and his ego do nothing to forward Northern Ireland in any debate he is one of the most divisive figures on the radio or TV today and that says something. He says he has the biggest show in the country but he has also the most distructful show in the country to Northern Ireland and its people and his manner and language are most questionable. The people who take part in his shows just promote his ego. What a difference his Radio5 live shows are that is because the Uk Mainland listeners would not put up with the way he speaks to listeners and participants and conducts his programmes here. That debate last night was just another one of his ego trips.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I agree with your comment except the last sentence. I don’t think it’s beyond the capacity of Nolan and his team to accommodate an informed intelligent debate. I think instead, like staged wrestling tournaments or the Jerry Springer Show , it’s an intentional and designed gimmick to achieve top of the league viewing & listening figures and the anchor’s star status ego but nothing else. That BBCNI (Reithian educate, inform and entertain in equal measure surely?) is responsible for this shock jock circus showcases the general shoddiness of much of NI’s journalism and the high viewing figures in turn not only perpetuate our intractability, they show an appetite for it.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Couldn’t agree more, William Crawley would be a lot better chairing these important debates.

  • Very much agree – my concern is that issues aren’t given the broad coverage they deserve, instead it turns into a school playground and all eyes drawn to the first sign of a ‘fight’, a bit of drama or (a local favourite) a chance to wallow in blame culture (always targeting an authority organisation for extra common-enemy mileage with the least fight-back).

    In terms of the wider issue of phone-in shows and similar formats, I’ve posted before about my concerns that subjects, especially when allegations are concerned, are skimmed over in whatever way maintains best dramatic effect and then never heard from again when it turns out callers and/ or public representatives were jumping on a bandwagon with very very few facts to hand. This is a source of ‘news’ to some and in the tinderbox we call home I think that is dangerous.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Carmel Hanna had to fight to get in and had no opportunity to develope her points, she had to basically shout them in like some fast food outlet. The whole thing was ridiculuous

  • hgreen

    I stopped reading at “Dan Hannan, one of the UK’s most skilled political orators and public intellectuals”. Another privately educated rich boy with no skin in the game when it comes to this referendum. Bet he gets a nice pay off from Boris if exit wins, which after all is what this farce is all about.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I too hate the adversarial approach that the media take to debates. But in Nolan’s defence his viewing figures would suggest he is giving people want they want. It makes more sense if you think of the show as entertainment.

  • Cushy Glen

    It was the same with the View on BBCNI when Mark Carruthers allowed Eddie Izzard & Sammy Wilson to dabble on simultaneously each trying to out talk the other. Carruthers just sat there & allowed this inaudible squabble to continue.
    I couldn’t make out a word they were saying & switched off.
    Carruthers is an experienced broadcaster so why did he allow this?

  • Chingford Man

    If you have nothing to contribute but a stupid personal attack, perhaps better not to write anything.

  • Chingford Man

    I didn’t see the debate but anything I have seen or heard of Nolan suggests to me that he has no place on public service broadcasting.

  • chrisjones2

    So now its the old classism as well as the racism and he has ‘skin in the game’ he is an MP

  • chrisjones2

    Awwwwww come on guys. All Stephen does is channel what is already there in our society

  • chrisjones2

    “an informed intelligent debate” ….but thats what we get at Stormont isnt it

  • chrisjones2

    You mean she found it hard to cope?

  • Dominic Hendron


  • babyface finlayson

    All William Crawley does is channel what is there too.
    So how come their shows sound so very different?

  • Daniel Jewesbury

    Ken Clarke is NOT campaigning to leave.

  • Jeffrey Peel

    Apologies…was a typo. Corrected.

  • Jeffrey Peel

    MEP…he loses his job if leave wins.

  • On the fence!

    Yes, but he shouldn’t. I’d expect someone in his position with his salary to be more pacifier than agitator.

    With power comes responsibility etc.

  • On the fence!

    …….or lure Mr Thompson back in front of the cameras for a night.

  • hgreen

    Ha ha multimillionaire has skin in the game. The man is only interested in his career like the rest of the tory exiters. Racism? Are you serious or just a bit thick?

  • hgreen

    You really seem to like things spelt out for you. I’m saying that Hannan has one objective in this referendum which is to further his own career.

  • hgreen

    I’m sure Boris and chums will see he’s got something to do.

  • Declan Doyle

    Well said

  • Declan Doyle

    Here, Chris says nothing I agree with ever, honestly I dont think we would see eye to eye on the colour of salt. However, he is far from thick. Play the ball, not the man.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m going to bite down really hard on a pencil, take deep breaths and agree to an extent but only in the fact that the Nolan Show is not fit for purpose.

    While Hanna did well in my opinion, some of the nonsense from elsewhere made me actually watch Diane Dodds, Martina Anderson and Jim Nicholson YouTube videos in the European Parliament.

    This should have been covered by a Spotlight Special Panel debate similar to the Leader’s debates we see in Westminster, Dáil Éireann and Stormont and European Parliament elections rather than the Nolan Show.

    People fawning over Daniel Hannan not getting his point across … Well if there’s a Leave vote you are going to see and hear less of him and more from the petty blue on blue tribal fantasists and dystopiamongers in the UK government, more about keeping outsiders out and insiders in and never the twain shall meet.

    I’ll do my best as a Remain activist to help the people of Europe hear his voice long after this referendum.

  • Irwin Armstrong

    Indeed Jeff I have been on the show a few times both on the panel and in the front row. The format is not suited to having one subject for an hour. It is really an entertainment show with some serious stuff thrown in and it works well in that format.

    Sadly last night did not shed much light on the referendum as both the panel and audience got over excited and very difficult to control and the various messages of the contributors vanished. It was not a debate it was an argument from start to finish. In common with you I can’t recall much of what anyone said.

    I have a high regard for Stephen Nolan and his ability to pin down participants in a more controlled environment with serious questions and without a studio audience. NI politicians and contributors need to know their subject when they appear on the radio show or they will look very exposed as several did in the last election.

    I think to try and take a successful format and impose a different type of show was always going to be a big ask and so it turned out.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The 3 NI MEPs combined earn less in a week than he does doing that show.

    Pretty much reflects how absurd Stephen Nolan’s role is in our politics, he’s effectively a quango himself.

  • hgreen

    He accused me of racism. I expect clarification or a retraction.

  • Declan Doyle

    I think Nolan can be very entertaining sometimes, boisterous, funny and warmly brattish, he certainly has some emotional intelligence but I think thats probably where it stops. He does not come across as the kind of person who has the level of intelligence required to manage any sort of debate which requires real depth and complicated analysis.

  • Declan Doyle

    Yes, in a word. She struggled in the same way a very bright articulate and talented person might stuggle to cope when surrounded by bullying neanderthals.

  • Declan Doyle

    And thats another problem. Our edia stars on big money have a selfish interest when it comes to debates regarding budgets and taxation etc.

  • I see what you mean, but how many of his viewers also realise they are watching entertainment and not news in that case.

  • OneNI

    I agree with most of what Jeff says But here’s the really sad part – Nolan is actually much better than this. Once in every election cycle he (and his team) dissect an individual politico in a one to one interview over an hour. And on his Radio 5 Live Show he is so much better.
    But his normal radio and TV show is just such gutter nonsense.

  • Donagh Mc Keown

    I have held a similar view about The Nolan Show on radio and TV for many years, though I can’t really make the criticism of recent programmes, as I chose not to listen for the last three or four years.. When I did, I felt the intention was always to provoke, cajole, browbeat the callers into making less than helpful or incisive remarks. I’m gathering that things haven’t changed much

  • Sherdy

    Jeff, you must be a very slow learner!
    The function of members of the public on Nolan’s radio or television shows is to be used and abused at his whim, especially if you can give him a headline he can pass on to the English BBC.
    But don’t think he’ll miss you too much if you decide not to play his game for him – there’ll be plenty more suckers willing to take your place!

  • Chingford Man

    And that is different to any other other politician in what way?

  • Nimn

    What I can’t stand about Nolan is that he puts forward no opinion of his own on any subject and therefore can play both sides of the argument. Would the real Nolan please stand up and have the guts to tells us what you think and fight your corner in debate.

    Having a little more time on my hands these days I toggle between Nolan and Frank Mitchell on U105 of a morning. Usually the dial stays on U105. There is a considerable contrast. Firstly, Mitchell sustains a three hour show, second he is not afraid to deliver an opinion of his own and debate it with listeners, third he has manners and treats people on the show with courtesy, fourth, he does not rely on a coterie of the same ‘commentators’ to debate issues but does the debating himself.

    Nolan has thrived on a participant audience of politicians and a close circle of commentators, (sorry Jeff) as well as a hotch-potch of regulars (George from the Shankill, Norman in Bangor, Big Jim the Community Worker from East Belfast, Gregory Campbell and a bunch of councillors desperate to get air time) to sustain his show. Some of these people were roundly exploited on Radio Face by Nolan as another money spinner.

    What this tight circle of politicians, professional pundits and members of the public don’t do is represent a wider societal view. Collectively it has become boring and people are switching off. He is also fixated with abortion and LGBT issues, I suspect because these subjects tap into the extremes of view in our society which Nolan is always keen to exploit.

    I have noticed that since the election both the DUP and SF senior members seem to be avoiding Nolan and his divisive, mainly uninformed style of interviewing. If so, I commend them for getting off on a good footing. The same Ministers have taken interviews on U105.

    Are the people of NI finally becoming saturated by the lazy Nolan style of journalism, his oafish narcissism and ego? Is there a possibility his star is on the wane?
    I seriously do hope so.

  • ted hagan

    Nolan is an intelligent guy who can be sharp and incisive and professional.
    But he’s juggling too many shows and has got sloppy. He relies too much on so called commentators; who are just spacefillers and i find myself listening less and less to the show. As I say, he’s a decent , intelligent broadcaster but he’s going to burn himself out.

  • Nimn

    This is an important point. The degree to which he uses a bevy of commentators to do our thinking for us is dangerous.

  • ted hagan

    Dare I say it but Crawley is far too Prod?

  • ted hagan

    That Radio Face thing was an abomination and an embarrassment. Hopefully it will never see the light of day again.

  • Croiteir

    Don’t know about Carmel but Claire is a definite lightweight, despite how many and often people big her up, cannot forget her poor performance when Nolan asked her to sell Irish unity and she could not even string two words together in spite of it being the easy to justify

  • hgreen

    Why don’t you read the tributes to Jo Cox and get back to me?

  • Granni Trixie

    Although Jeff makes compelling criticism of Nolan/programmes, I too appreciate his talent and agree he is probably spreading it too thinly around,

    An example of where he gets things right in my view is on issue of punishment beatings, a topic which is generally not “newsworthy” but which he gives attention to showning himself well able to deal morally with the input of local people who tend to justify this form of ‘policing’. I hope Jeff does not include this kind of topic in his accusation of parochialism which I agree is the case in how the ‘big’ debates on Nolan shows tend to be framed. I also think that the Nolan team could learn from JP analysis.

  • Kev Hughes

    Well said Jeff, Nolan is a circus and it tries to reduce complex and important issues to sound-bites and howling,

    Some might say ‘so what?’. Well, this programme is coming from BBC NI which does not produce a lot of programmes and as such, I would like to hope it could produce something a bit more engaging and informative on such a matter.

  • Chingford Man

    No, I don’t think I will because making political capital out of someone just murdered is gross.

  • Dominic Hendron

    I saw that programme, another Nolan disaster. What a question to ask, says it all.

  • babyface finlayson

    I suppose he is a prod, but he seems fairly even handed to me.
    Any examples of being too prod?
    In any event his calmer style is much easier to listen to than Nolan. He reminds me a little of Dunseath.

  • Nolan like too many journalists see themselves as celebrity and entertainers and use issues to promote themselves, boost their pay packets and get themselves talked about and this “debate” was no different. The EU referendum is a good subject for debate and does transcend the normal political divide but a lot of the problem arises with the listeners too who only want to hear short sharp contributions which they can listen to between bites of food they eat during such shows. As you say Daniel Hannan is an excellent speaker and as an MEP has a huge knowledge of the subject but people were deprived of hearing him, I first heard him speak on the subject at a conference early last year and was amazed to hear an argument so well put. I just hope he has the tenacity to stick at it become Conservative leader at some future point, he would make a great prime minister.

  • SDLP supporter

    Croiteir, I am sure you are a colossus of intellect, charisma, presence, charm, articulation and presentation yourself. Take a look at yourself and your ‘contributions’ to this site: you are the epitome of carping negativity. As I recall, the Nolan question to CH was ‘sell me a United Ireland in one minute’. ‘Fatuous’ is the word you used yourself, and it applies to that question.

  • ted hagan

    No I am only jesting. He’s an intelligent guy and I haven’t really listed to him on Talkback but otherwise he seems a very competent presenter. I think my only gripe was the Ulster Scots series which was rather antiseptic I thought’ and seemed to airbrush out any idea of conquest, rather, it was like the Scottish arrived on the Cairnryan to Larne ferry and found homes all done up and waiting for them.
    But then I’m a Prod with some Scottish ancestry so I’m just saying, and guessing at perceptions.

  • HopefulPessimist

    I couldn’t agree more, seldom watch him and don’t listen to his radio show because he is just a rabble rouser.

  • hgreen

    Might challenge your world view that all politicians are only in it for themselves.

  • Gary English

    couldn’t agree more

  • Croiteir

    Much to be negative about – especially when the subject is the post nationalists in the SDLP. No try again and do try not to play the man, if you can.

  • Croiteir

    Indeed – imagine the temerity of mentioning Irish unity – the cheek of it

  • Leonard Mcateer

    Stephen Nolan is a narcissistic fool, if his belly wasn’t so big ,his head wouldn’t be able to stay on his shoulders! he’s completely politically unaware of any issue of local or geo political events and seems to take his research from the tabloids or the gutter journalist of the daily mail!

  • John Collins

    Could you make a point of tuning into TV3 in the ROI at 11 pm any night from 11 to midnight and see the carry on of the veteran host Vincent Browne. He would make Stephen Nolan look a broadcasting paragon.

  • Jimmyz

    I would learn more watching the telly tubbies than the nolan show

  • Ian Wallace

    Nolan likes to be devil’s advocate on most matters. Unfortunately he is not very good at it. He doesn’t allow structured debate to develop on matters he makes controversial comments on. Invariably they descend into a shouting match where no one can decipher from which side the protagonists are arguing from. Personally I have now stopped listening or watching his shows for that reason.

  • Barry Corrigan

    I remember after that show had ended I was saying to myself, “that was a tough watch”. It was typical Nolan, a common feature. I remember the BBC / RTE debate when Nolan asks Clare Hannah “In 30 seconds sell me a United Ireland”. It’s all about ratings and less about a informed debate.