Northern Ireland broadcasters should not put their trust in politicians

I see the Commons Northern Ireland Committee has fallen for vigorous lobbying by the small but perfectly formed local broadcasting industry. Good luck to them, so long as we don’t take some the committee’s suggestions too seriously, as posted by Pete. One is self evidently bonkers financially and constitutes unacceptable political intervention.

The Committee has called for the government to provide a fund for non-news programmes to be administered by the NI Assembly.

Another sounds reasonable to the uninitiated but is of doubtful value in reality.

We strongly recommend that the Government ask the BBC seriously and urgently to consider locating a programme commissioner permanently within Northern Ireland.

This begs the question of whether the powerful network centres will pay attention to a single commissioner for all programme genres sitting out in a region. History says not. Better to stick to the present strategy of local managements ( I really mean the BBC) gathering a portfolio of programme proposals to attract the network centre, based on building local critical mass. UTV have other fish to fry. But the basic truth is, the demands of large scale production in the digital age have far outgrown the capacity of a small region to deliver them. The radical approach to counteract the trend is is to locate a major production centre in Belfast. And this will not happen.
Regional broadcasters are understandably lobbying hard these days, when devolution in national politics is being mirrored in the politics of broadcasting. It’s a issue that produces great clouds of fog from both sides and some changes in governance to appease the politicians, but the hard fact is that the likely returns shouldn’t be exaggerated. Have no illusions, good ideas wanted by the networks will remain king, rather than local job creation. Again, portrayal and production are two different elements. Two big programmes tonight illustrate the difference. The drama blockbuster airing tonight “Mo “about Mo Mowlam as Secretary of State will portray Northern Ireland vividly at a key moment in recent history. I don’t know the production details but its genesis is in the ITV drama centre. There are jobs for local actors, extras and probably a few technicians. Perhaps a little investment by NI Screen has been put in. But by no means can it be called an NI production.

Take the less obvious example of the BBC1 series Seven Ages of Britain presented by David Dimbleby launching tonight. BBC NI has an all-Ireland brief but will Ireland be represented? (Please forebear to comment about the “Britain”). If so, this enhances portrayal but is unlikely to produce much work locally, if any. Yet British, Irish and international themes are always worth targeting by local managements for a local look-in or contribution.

Drama is the Big One where the fashion for movie-scale production far exceeds the capacity of BBC NI to continue to resource it. Locally hosted drama requires much outside resourcing and investment. While much of it has enjoyed high impact success, it has never satisfied union demands for more local high value jobs. Partly this is because the existing skills base is too small. But how can it grow unless the commissions come in? And so the argument is circular. Strains are evident in the departure of BBC NI’s head of drama. The accompanying annoucement from BBC local head Peter Johnson sounds quite a gamble: “

The reorganisation of the BBC Northern Ireland drama department is likely to see it focus more on indigenous drama and concentrate its activities in Belfast.”

Can this strategy succeed? Peter Johnson has yet to explain how.

To increase production, the fair question is asked: do programmes made in NI need to be about Ireland? The answer is a cautious no. BBCNI should blow the trumpet more loudly for its centre of current affairs excellence which produced the Panorama on Irisgate as a version of the local Spotlight. They tackle non- Irish subjects too. Some examples of non-Irish themes satisfy neither the demands of portrayal nor production, like the BBC4 discussion series Dinner with Portillo which lacks the slightest NI connection on screen. A little production supervision and the BBCNI brass plate at the end are added to give a dubious impression of an addition to an NI production record.

If behind the lobbying there are hopes of formal regional quotas in broadcasting, they are doomed. They have certainly failed in the past. Major TV production is a hugely expensive business in the digital age and the idea of the region hosting hugh volume large scale production is an illusion. On a smaller scale, broadcasters like UTV and Macmillan with their strong record on the front line stand every chance of winning contracts for ITV local news Scotland and Wales. Local unions and companies will never be satisfied, naturally enough. But the message has to be, if you play to your strengths and build up your local base, you stand a chance of success. “Success” can hardly be dominance. The suggested target of a 3% share of total network output for Northern Ireland to reflect the population ratio, seems random and overambitious to me. Whatever the realisitic ambition, to rely on the political route is to risk disillusion and failure.

  • Davros

    If this means a second series of Jackie’s Jaunts it can only be a good thing.

  • Should that not read “Northern Ireland broadcasters should not put their trust in mainland politicians.”

  • iluvni

    I demand the return of the Pain in the Hole gang.

  • ardmaj55

    Alas, from recent interview with Robinson, the local news media and the politicians are very cosy with each other. it’s practically a mutual appreciation society since iris’s fallout.

  • This is a debate which is more vital to the future of NI than the current ‘crisis’ over the devolution of policing and justice.

    I have always felt that it was more important to devolve the poweers relating to broadcasting to Belfast than policing. After all most people spend time in front of TV per day than they would dealing with police or the justice system in their entire lives.

    The starting point for this interest of mine was the Irish Language legislation promised/proposed under the St Andrews Agreement. If broadcasting wasn’t to be devolved, there was very little that a local Irish Language Act could achieve to improve the lives of Irish speakers and the image of the language. All that would be achieved is the insertion of a costly and redundant level of bureaucracy in NI administration, as Official Languanges Act achieved in the south.

    However, on a more general point, I am of the opinion that a locally accountable broadcasting service, which the BBC is not, was vital for people living in Northern Ireland. BBC NI is essentially being let off the hook of reflecting life in NI, in all its varieties and in all its diversity, by having thie cushion of a huge section of ‘national’ programming occupy a majority of the schedule.

    Northern Ireland/Ireland is to all intents and purposes, as Brian points out, invisible on that schedule. Why should, for instance, the people of Belfast have to wait until 6.30 to see their local news. Why couldn’t there be a proper mix of local and global news at 6pm?

    The business with irisgate and Spotlight and panorama illustrates how marginal NI is to the mainstream on the ‘mainland’. After all, Panorama merely repeated the Spotlight programme as if viewers on the ‘mainland’ hadn’t seen it and viewers in NI wanted to see it again and, if they didn’t, who cared? Nobody in the BBC head office in London!

    Sure there are problems and challenges to be overcome with the devolution of broadcasting powers to NI – who would trust Nelson McCausland or Barry McIlduff with such a responsibility as setting the tv schedule for your nights entertainment. No TV on the ‘Sabbath’ and live coverage of IRA commemorations from dawn to dusk?

    As it is, the BBC in Belfast have no interest in cutting the London link as that would sever the flow of funding which overpays them and ensures they have the cushiest number going in broadcasting on these islands for those who occupy the top slots in the organisation. [Those on the ground have to make do with rolling three month contracts with no real job security so as they don’t step out of line or go ‘off message’….


  • slug

    Does anyone else find BBC Newsline inane? The tedious banter between main presenters and the patronising smiles and false humour. Grrr.

  • alan56

    The BBC has been concentrating on trying to get NI productions sold to the network, that releases funding. It has not worked. They should encourage local production companies to produce local programmes which reflect NI society, and not just the view from inside broadcasting house Belfast.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    What utter self righteous, self important, self serving nonsense.
    Local broadcasters and local journalists….lionised on this website… er local broadcasters and journalists.

    In the 1950s and 1960s where were the local fearless broadcast journalists who told us about the way Norn Iron was.
    Mostly in Oranges Lodges and having their own Masonic Lodge in Arthur Square.

    All local journalists seem to d is imagine that they are important.

  • percy

    Julie Walters portrays Labour politician Mo Mowlam, who worked tirelessly to help bring about the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998 despite privately battling to overcome the brain tumour that had been diagnosed shortly before the general election a year earlier. The dramatisation also stars David Haig as her husband Jon Norton, Steven Mackintosh as Peter Mandelson, and John Lynch as Gerry Adams

    Channel 4 9.00pm TONITE

  • ardmaj55

    Slug [6] You’re not alone in that, but i’m not sure UTV live is much better. Just not as patronising i suppose. The Newsline weather girl they get sent from the met office is very strict on using the ‘London’ prefix on references to the city or county of Derry. But both channels plus the local press always go over the top on the N. Ireland football team, even though they know it’s supported mainly by one side of the population here.

  • iluvni

    Surely the greatest unanswered question is who the hell commissioned that dreadful Colin Murphy crap on BBC NI the other night?

  • Mark McGregor


    Maybe you should ask Mick to contribute on this debate in more general terms. Through 4iP he has seen investment in upskilling and expanding ‘regional’ ability (yes, I know Mick is based in england) to work within a broader sphere. Maybe investing in what is done best locally and helping it build towards a product that can cross-over/expand is something others should examine.

    Though it would take a long term strategy and Mick clearly hasn’t got a commitment to that and 4iP don’t seem to be funding them anywhere.

  • articles

    Hard to bear but Good Morning Ulster is as near as we have got to a broadcast challenge function to the present two party state; sites such as these are narrowcast and have minimal influence I suggest.

  • Mark McGregor


    Too right. I’m not suggesting Slugger has any influence. Just saying 4iP decided to give a limited investment to helping expand/grow the best bits of what Mick does.

    That kind of model expanded out to ‘mainstream’ investment in local media may be of worthwhile. Instead of trying to compete with players it may be smarter to invest in the things done well.

    Mick would tell you I’m probably the biggest critic of Slugger’s impact.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    in fairness ardmaj, you prolly dont remember a time when BBC Sport in Norn Iron did not go “live” to Landsdowne Road until after the Irish National Anthem was played. the big screen behind Harry Thompson was his cue to go live.

    Likewise local broadcasting DOES feature coverage of the Republics football team. Rather like the Irelands Saturday Night features Rangers reports ahead of Celtic reports. No harm as it reflects the demograhic and the Irish News and News Letter barely mention the other sides “national teams”.

    The BBC have some pompous sounding remit but the reality is that in multi channel land, BBC NI and UTV are both seen in the Republic. Pitching themselves as a “northern broadcaster” does nothing for revenue for UTV. In order for those adverts for Buttercrane and Foyleside to be effective they have to get seen in the South.
    Likewise Julians pre-Coronation Street competitions which invites callers from the South.

    Even with NI, the BBC/UTV in terms of employee staff etc should prolly be more reflective of the POLITICAL as well as ETHNIC background. We could probably all list around 100 on screen talent (I use the term very loosely) in terms of news/sport/weather etc…..but of those who vote (and obviously its a private matter) Im not convinced that the PUBLIC is reflected. ….of BBC “on screen” staff who vote really 30%= DUP or 24% Sinn Féin …prolly not.

  • slug

    There should be more black and asian people on the local channels.

  • Does not ESPecial Intelligence and SMARTer Information Servers not deliver to Politicians and Media their Policy Decisions to make moves and take positions on, or are critical National, InterNational and InterNetional Strategies left to butchers and bakers and candle stick makers, rich men and poor men, beggars and thieves?

    Has MI5 lost the Plot, Loughside, or has it yet to be brought online with ITs Cloud ConneXXXXion to Base Cyber Station, Global Communications HQ.

    And is this a Belfast Child, although hardly from Simple Minds ……. …. [quote][i]Now All of that would All make a Hell of a Blockbuster Movie Program and Global Operating Device Civil CyberSpace Project

    Welcome to the Cinderella RockerFeller Program from the Stables of Merlin the MetaDataBase Physician and Seventh Heaven, Global Communications HQ.[/i][/quote]

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Slug…this is indeed true. But of course ethnic background is only one part of diversity.
    If BBC NI or UTV did not fully represent women in our society it would be wrong.
    So why are there not more DUP or TUV or SF type people?

    In order to have faith in our Police we must have a political balance…surely its the same for broadcasters. Not fair that they should all consider themselves too intelligent (whether journalists or that smartass Colin Murphy or that Tim McGarry)

  • slug


    It almost sounds as though you are calling for some lower-IQ people to be used.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    That would be to say that the people currently employed by BBC and UTV are of a higher intelligence than people voting DUP, TUV or SF.

    They only THINK they are. 🙂

  • Brian Walker

    “Northern Ireland/Ireland is to all intents and purposes, as Brian points out, invisible on that schedule”
    Actually Con, I didn’t say that. I was a referring to locally produced programmes for the BBC networks, not local output which is entirely different. Local programmes feature widely in the local BBC1 schedule with some on BBC2. Scotland, Wales and NI are much better served in their areas than English regions because they’re held to have stronger identities. What a grumpy lot you are about local programmes. I’d just point out that they’re often more popular in the slot than network programmes. Some formal accountability for BBC Scotland to the Scottish Parliament is I believe inevitable but well short of control which the BBC will always resist, I believe successfully. Spare us having politicians take decisions about broadcasting. The Scottish precedent if it happens may be repeated one day quite far off in NI. I see no harm in taking account of MLAs’ views in formal sessions.

    I’m all for TG4NI or something similar if it can be made to work and strongly support open skies broadcasting for the island. But there’s a whole nest of problems about rights to sort out first and the BBC can’t bear the burden of it. In any case, major expansion in Irish would leave it open to another charge of imperial overstretch wouldn’t it?

    Mark, the NIC report discusses broadcasters and indy TV producers across genres. They are the battleships compared to 4iP’s experimental fast patrol boats and as such may well be obsolescent!

  • ardmaj55

    FJH [15] I remember TV coverage of sport [or anything really] only since 1967 and for three years after that, UTV only, as our first TV was decidedly limited. I remeber Sportscast being on a Friday night with either Gordon Burns or Fullerton in those days. [In 1967, I was 12], You mentioned harry Thompson, I thought he only did political stuff like election coverage, and on radio, wd flackes who I used to hear every morning waiting for the bus to school.

  • Alias

    “I have always felt that it was more important to devolve the poweers relating to broadcasting to Belfast than policing.”

    Broadcasting is an “excepted matter” under the GFA. Also, the BBC’s Royal Charter means that it must always promote British national interests, so unless you suddenly decide that you are one of the four major British nations listed under the Charter, then you have no hope of ever being able to promote the national interest of the nation that you belong to.

    [i]Trust members for the nations

    (1)Four ordinary members of the Trust shall respectively be designated –

    (a)the Trust member for England;
    (b)the Trust member for Scotland;
    (c)the Trust member for Wales; and
    (d)the Trust member for Northern Ireland.

    (3)Each person to be designated under this article shall be suitably qualified by virtue of –

    (a)his knowledge of the culture, characteristics and affairs of the people in the nation for which he is to be designated, and
    (b)his close touch with opinion in that nation.[/i]

    The ‘Public Purposes’ of the BBC are to consolidate a sense of British national identity for the purpose of “sustaining” the link between that common nationalism and the British state. Clearly, this is a UK national agenda and does not allow for the promotion of any political statement that seeks to undermine the constitutional status of the UK by making a claim that the nations that comprise the UK should be sovereign and independent of it or that any nation not included in the charter (as as the Irish rather than the Northern Irish nation) should have its rights promoted by the BBC where promotion of those rights world serve to undermine that constitutional status.

    [i]The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows—

    (a)sustaining citizenship and civil society;
    (b)promoting education and learning;
    (c)stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
    (d)representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
    (e)bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;
    (f)in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.[/i]

  • Alias

    Also, is there any reason to suppose that local broadcasting media would not be as fragmented as local print media, with nationalists reading nationalist papers and unionists reading unionist papers? How may listen to Stephen Nolan for clues to which agenda he is aligned to? Plenty, and plenty elsewhere since bias and allegations of bias in the nominally non-aligned media is a fact of life when two nations are compelled to share one state.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    I dont think Fullerton would have been as early as 1967.
    Ernest Strathdee early 1960s was ealiest UTV sportscaster that I remember….Leslie Dawes would have been around 1967.
    Fullerton (per Wikipedia) only began his broadcastig career (???!!!) in 1973. Remarkable how they turned down MY entry in Wikipedia on the grounds that I was not famous enough.
    Harry Thompson used to do sports reports on Saturday night (Ronald Rosser presented BBC Sport) and Thompson went on into mainstream “politics” where he always looked to me to be out of his depth.

  • willis

    I have read all of the report, and a fair bit of the submissions and evidence and I really cannot see where you get the idea that the NI affairs committee “have fallen for vigorous lobbying”

    They seem to have understood that the News Coverage provided by BBC and UTV is well resourced and popular. What is not so well resourced is non-news local programming. So if the Govt have a bit of spare cash that they would use for News in Scotland or Wales, here it should be used for other programming.

    The report is well worth a read. I understand your pessimism but can you explain why if we are so useless at TV production, in the last 18-24 months NI had more hours of programming commissioned from international platforms than anywhere else in the UK? (para 23)

  • [quote][i]The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows—

    (a)sustaining citizenship and civil society;
    (b)promoting education and learning;
    (c)stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
    (d)representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
    (e)bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;
    (f)in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.[/i] …… Posted by Alias on Jan 31, 2010 @ 08:45 PM[/quote]

    Quite obviously then it is an epic fail, Alias, as it panders to the enrichment of failed government lackeys and the creatively challenged and inept of the wannabe a star with no talent undereducated classes.

    It is all dumb chiefs and no smart indians.

    [quote]Broadcasting is an “excepted matter” under the GFA. [/quote] And it aint no concidence that that is so, for whenever you are in Control of BroadBandCasting are you Chief Dumb Controller of Arrogance and Ignorance and Remote Virtual Brain Washer of the Masses …… for Present them with a Program and call it the News and you have created a AIReality and none of it is good nowadays, is it, which lets you know how bad they are at the Job and Ancient Mystic Art of Sublime Leadership.

    And trying to share such views on the BBC message boards will certainly earn you one of these every time you try to educate and entertain the masses …….[b]You are not permitted to post on this board[/b] and then there is this variation too …….[b]There has been an unexpected problem. Please reload the page and try again [/b] …… and which of course, never resolves itself to succeed and allow for posting and public view on the BBC.

    But Martin and Gerry know all about those Gagging Games whenever one has something of true significance to say which cannot be disputed or denied.

    And keeping you ignorant of greater knowledge and better and wholly different things, is now something which is on the global political control agenda, as Fools on Hills in their Cuckoos Nest places try to keep themselves in dissolving corrupting positions of delusional power ……..

    A lost cause before it has even started, I’d wager, but the stupidity of Man knows no bounds and thus are future absolutely fabulously obscene fortunes both virtually and practically guaranteed for those who would so wager.

    [quote]But the basic truth is, the demands of large scale production in the digital age have far outgrown the capacity of a small region to deliver them.[/quote] ……. Complete and utter piffle, Brian Walker, the digital age has enabled and provides for any small region to deliver them effortlessly*, for all that is required, for even the greatest of everlasting blockbuster movie series, is a few heads put together to produce and direct them, and that is just the simple transfer and exchange of Greater/Better Beta Intelligence over the Internet these days ……. and as simple as it has just been shown here, transparently, with this posting and message to whatever Intelligence Service would be thinking to be Top Mad Gun Dog Running and Retrieving Juicy Information for the Greater Benefit of Northern Ireland from SMARTer IntelAIgents Sources and Networks InterNetworking JOINT Applications.

    [quote]The radical approach to counteract the trend is is to locate a major production centre in Belfast. And this will not happen. [/quote] ….. Who says? Belfast Holywood has a major Intelligence Production Centre, Loughside, does it not? Or is that another New Labour Government Cabal White Elephant/Parasitic Cash Cow and Dumb MOD Worm feeding off the Public Purse to burden and repress and suppress the worker taxpayer, who hosts all such Flogged Dead Horses.

    [quote] 15. Of all the public service broadcasters, it is the BBC that retains primacy. We believe that it has not adequately discharged its responsibilities in Northern Ireland, and we repeat our call for a commissioner for programming to be based in Belfast. (Paragraph 64) …. Pete Baker @ 04:16 PM ….

    Seconded, in spades, Pete. Present BBC Performance and Intelligence Delivery is Sub-Prime Negligent Abysmal …… and would certainly benefit from a radical boost and right titanic rocket.

  • Alias

    Of course it’s not a ‘coincidence’ – ’tis why the muppets were led think that the definition of ‘republican’ is “someone who uses the terms north/south (usually capitalised) and turns photos of the queen face down.” 😉

  • Alias

    Incidentally, the propaganda value of the BBC in promoting British national interests is why the Irish government under Conor Cruise O’Brien allowed it to be transmitted in Ireland. It was his view that it would serve to undermine Irish nationalism – which was not an unreasonable position at a time when there were only two TV stations in the country. The Irish people didn’t realise that’s its introduction had that sinister agenda and were simply delighted to get two extra TV channels – one of which showed the occasional good movie, as opposed to the bargain bin films that RTE could only afford.

  • Brian Walker

    Willis, you say: “What is not so well resourced is non-news local programming. So if the Govt have a bit of spare cash that they would use for News in Scotland or Wales, here it should be used for other programming.”

    But that’s what I say is bonkers. Where is the local spare cash these days? And is direct goverment spend a good thing? I say not, but they can contribute at arms length say, through NI Screen at a time when the DCal budget faces drastic cuts. As I also say, the spend on local programme is handsome. In the lifetimes of the grumblers above, it has expanded exponentially. This has been quite an achievement, when you consider that the cost per viewer hour in a small place like NI is very high.
    No I’m not pessimistic, I’m just a realist when it comes to very competitive access to networks. NI broadcasters and indys are bound to be SMEs, although they can form parts of consortia to make the sort of big budget programmes that get noticed. As I see it, their natural targets are off peak slots and the digital channels with new and versioned programmes.

    I don’t know how it works exactly now, but Indies may see a conflict of interest in a BBCNI manager championing their interests as well as BBC staff’s. But as indy output locally seems to be quite high, fair treatment has probably been demonstrated locally. Given the likely volume of business, a rigid commissioner/producer split for the networks probably isn’t viable. A fair compromise is the local programmes head acting as an ambassador for both network commissioners and local producers, both in house and independent. She is ideally placed to have the best grasp of both local potential and network commissioning requirements and to lobby for more and better from each side.

  • willis

    Thanks for the reply Brian.

    I do take your point that local BBC non-news programming has been very well resourced. That has been the traditional sop to the closed commissioning door in London.

    What the report was saying IMHO:
    Because NI already has adequate local news provision there is no need to help that area. There are other areas which clearly do need help, why not channel the money that way. I completely agree with you that the money, if any, would be better channelled through NI Screen who actually have a fantastic record than through the Assembly Culture committee.

    Your last paragraph is a masterpiece of restraint.