I wanted to take some time give a different view on the media and in particular the BBC output locally. Now before you say, yes I appear on the airwaves arguing the bit out on a particular issue. But i am genuinely a supporter of public service broadcasting and don’t begrudge the licence fee paying for the type of programmes that we just otherwise wouldn’t see. But the past six years has also given me experience of seeing how Ormeau Avenue operates from a distant view and what why I believe the output serves us well.
I enjoy talk radio, but I am not an obsessive listener to radio. I look on Twitter first thing in the morning and if I see something I like, I will tune in. Even though i am not a regular listener to Nolan or his programmes, I do see value in some of the things that he does. Love him or loathe him, he has helped in uncovering some of the biggest political stories in Northern Ireland politics. Remember that Jonathan Bell interview that helped bring RHI to another level? Nolan has a distinct tone that appeals to a section of the society in Northern Ireland, it’s not my cup of tea all the time, but it does reach a section of our society who want that type of programme.
We have a lot of talk radio on air, but not all are created equally or try to simply do the same thing. Anyone who has appeared on Nolan and Talkback will know this and attest to this fact that they are two different shows in both the tone and the way debates are handled and rightly so.
Why do we need shows like Talkback? They don’t just provide another 90 minute talking shop on top of what went just over an hour before. If you look at the contributors who feature on Good Morning Ulster and Nolan, they seldom appear at 12pm on Talkback. During the COVID-19 epidemic, there has been segments with experts who know the virus taking calls from the public. This might sound trivial to people who obsessively watch the news, but for others this is their chance to find out information. Not everyone is on Twitter or Facebook and for some people, this is how they can learn what to to do and have anxieties dealt with by experts.
As for the commentators who appear, they do get to voice their opinions but also have scrutiny placed upon them. Numerous shows we have witnessed commentators falls apart, who cannot justify their arguments with any factual standing. Whilst commentators have risen up the ranks on this show (people like Mick, Chris and Sarah from this parish have) others have struggled to keep the pace and fallen off the map. The BBC quite often will touch base with this site and try to get some newer voices form here on to the airwaves.
This sifting process is critical for our local discourse. Can you hear too much of some people? Sure. But on this site we can be as guilty of that as anyone. Slugger TV has a regular stable of commentators. Why? Because we want quality contributions from people who can deal with the information in front of them and we only have to produce that programme once a month not 5 times per week.
In system of local governance, the public don’t always get a look in and are able to question politician and key civic leaders. Phone in programmes at their best make that possible. Some similar voices phone in but the opportunity is there for others to get in and make their voice heard. Quality contributions can come in and it isn’t always just from the Bangor area as Ian was arguing. Also if you listen in to Talkback one of the first words you hear from William Crawley is something along the lines of “new callers will get to the head of queue.”
Phone in programmes such as Talkback are necessary to avoid a static in the commentariat and also provide an important accountability factor that simply would not exist otherwise. You might not like the views from callers, but those views and people exist in Northern Ireland and they should be allowed to critique and comment on our society as much as anyone else.
The BBC is not beyond criticism. But there is a wider debate about the media necessary in Northern Ireland that needs to go beyond just the BBC and how the broadest base of voices are heard in our society. How that happens I am not sure but we shouldn’t close down the avenues of talking are the way to go.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs