Nolan: A Public Service Broadcaster?

Yesterday, on Twitter, the trending hashtag was #BBCPay. Today it’s #BBCPaygap.

The big story, yesterday, as far as I was concerned, was the squandering of licence-payer money. The paygap was a secondary story. Important, yes, but not the main story.  The BBC thought otherwise and drove the agenda in its chosen direction.

The only Northern Irish broadcaster in the Top “Talent” pay-list published yesterday was Stephen Nolan. He earns over £400,000 a year for hosting his BBC Radio Ulster radio phone-in show, broadcast at a time that most working people can’t listen. That’s about 17 times the average Northern Ireland salary.

But still, he claims, he’s responsible for the “biggest show in the country.”  By “country” I presume he means Northern Ireland and not Ireland or the United Kingdom. I suppose “biggest show in the tiny region” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

He also broadcasts on Radio 5 Live – a BBC station with just around 3% or so UK ‘market share’.

It’s for these reasons that the Daily Mail, yesterday, made the point that one broadcaster in the Top 10 Earners’ List was somebody most people in the UK had never heard of: Stephen Nolan.  The BBC NI region contains less than 3% of the UK population.

Today, we learn, that in addition to his personal income from the BBC, Nolan also receives income through his production company that sells TV content to, you guessed it, the BBC. The extent of this income is still to be revealed. In his interview with Jim Allister, broadcast this morning, Nolan claimed that he was an “entrepreneur” in creating his production company and not having a silver spoon in his mouth. Except, of course, the BBC is the silver spoon.

Nolan has made clear in the past that he always had ambitions to get to the BBC. The BBC in Northern Ireland dwarfs all other news and current affairs outlets. He also made it known yesterday that he is ambitious and wants to earn a lot of money. Unfortunately for us, his chosen cash-cow is not ‘the market’ but the BBC.

But questions do have to be asked about the vast amount of cash being heaped on one individual who waddles, primarily, in a tiny pond.

Nolan may be a big man but he has not made it big as a national broadcaster. Relatively speaking his audiences are tiny. He has not attained public recognition in Britain, and he has no real brand equity outside of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, it’s perfectly justifiable asking – as many have – just how a public service broadcaster can justify his vast salary and additional fees paid to his production company.  These are valid questions when so many broadcasters with much greater reach and ‘brand equity’ are paid so much less. Broadcasters like Emily Maitlis didn’t even make the list. Others, like Andrew Neil, are paid substantially less than Nolan.

The publication of the list has made clear that public service broadcasting may be elemental to the BBC’s charter commitment, but many of its insiders are riding a gravy train paid for by the general public. The short-term solution must be pay caps for overpaid staff. In the longer term, the nature of funding of the BBC really must be questioned. It’s one of many broadcasters and its reach – especially to the young – is in terminal decline.

The payment of a licence fee to pay “talent” and administrators to run a bloated and unaccountable institution like the BBC is anachronistic. In Northern Ireland terms Nolan is the exemplar of everything that’s wrong with the BBC. BBC NI needs to get real very soon.  We’re all (or at least some of us) watching.

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).