The power of Nolan – too much of a good thing?

It was interesting to see that there was as much comment on Nolan personally as about Pastor McConnell. I don’t see or hear Nolan that often but I thought he played a pretty straight bat on this one. I’m told he divides an already divided community, not on sectarian lines but between pro- and anti- Nolan. That’s quite a tribute. I bet opinion swings quite a bit just like a Nolan interview.

With Nolan we’re on a rollercoaster. Whether you like or loathe him depends on whether the sensation thrills you or makes you sick. He’s a natural, he has the quickest brain to mouth co-ordination on air I know.

Nolan is the nearest to a US style speech jock that the BBC dares employ. He can’t actually lead with his own opinion. So Instead of formal neutrality he swings between extremes, sympathising and stirring up, slapping down and mediating according to topic and interviewee. But this, the BBC would say, is him characterising opinions not speaking for himself. By getting under the skin he avoids the staleness  and dull ritual of so many News interviews. The problem of NI is that the same subjects have been repeating themselves for decades and interviewers and interviewees are too often on autopilot. I sympathise with them entirely.

Nolan can be wonderfully sensitive, like the memorable show on abortion.  However easy the target the self- inflicted demolition of Mrs Robinson was memorable. And like all good broadcasters he seems fearless whatever he feels inside.

The downside?  He lulls “ordinary people” into a false sense of security and then cuts the feet from under them. Does he make a bad situation worse? Does he stir  up false controversy or is he only holding up the mirror to nature?  Are we really that lying/ bigoted/plain bloody thick?  Is he debasing the political debate? (Speak up I didn’t hear you).

I’d guess that behind the breezy manner beats the heart of a sensitive and self critical chap. He is too aware of the collective psychology of his audience not to be acutely self aware. Was it just the angle of the opening shot or has he lost weight?

What he does is much harder than many people think, but once you get the hang of it you can become too pleased with yourself, you too can become formulaic, even if you’re as adroit as Nolan .  If you want to draw people out and they fear you ‘ll suddenly  slap them down, you may not get the best out of them. It can be a fine judgment and there’s always the risk of over exposure. Although he has a 5 live show his commitment to Northern Ireland seems absolute. While there’s plenty of mileage left in his knockabout, if  I were responsible for Nolan I’d give him some extended interviews with people who know what they’re talking about.  Explore new ideas and broaden the agenda with thoughtful people. They really  do exist. Too much if that is left to the God spots.

My own verdict on Nolan is mixed as I’m not a regular. I think it’s better to refer  to” it” the show rather than ” him” the person. When I hear it I’m  informed and entertained and  enjoyably irritated.  – and  let’s admit  we  like shouting at the radio and TV. We can feel superior without challenge. But I’m glad I don’t catch the show very often.  Too much exposure to  NI attitudes is depressing.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London