Northern Ireland’s future demands new energy and ideas from the BBC

Denis Bradley writing in the Irish News

The atmosphere that has been nurtured on BBC Radio Ulster and Foyle since the peace process has driven away more voices than it has attracted. Only the most vocal of our politicians are regulars. Most clerics avoid it like the plague. Key personnel in many of our most important institutions never appear, most likely out of fear. Many do not feel equipped to partake in an atmosphere that is not always conducive to explanation or exploration.

That critique has been less prevalent during lockdown. Virologists have taken over the airways and commentators and listeners have left the disagreements to the scientists themselves. But that is not going to last forever.

We are on the threshold of some major debates that have proven themselves very capable of raising passions and hackles. Brexit will shortly push its way back onto the agenda and an economic border on the Irish Sea will crash on to the airways. When and how to prepare the border poll promised in the Good Friday Agreement hasn’t gone away.

These critical discussions will take place in the years marking the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland.

BBC would be well advised to begin exploring its capability of handling the coming debates in a way that does more good than harm.

As a BBC NI broadcaster in another age long removed to England, I’m simply not well enough qualified to judge the fairness of Denis’ piece.  Nolan whose coordination from brain to mouth is among fastest I know, is Marmite man and seems almost bigger than BBCNI  itself. Talkback regularly with William Crawley is a soberer offering. Mark Carruthers interrogates the politicians and commentators with commendable if  familiar tenacity.

I can of course access the local output on iPlayer and BBC Sounds but there’s a bigger world out there, life is too short etc etc. I only tune in on big occasions. On visits “home” I give  Radio Ulster a go but usually recoil after an hour or so. I’m just not used to it any more. Whether  this  says more  about me or it I’m not sure. But if this was my daily diet it would drive me crazy.

Having briefly held a couple of BBC NI posts  a lifetime ago and  as former  commissioning editor of BBC Radio  current affairs magazine and documentary programmes in London, I’m familiar with most of the problems of news broadcasting. The BBC cannot  afford to go too far ahead of the agenda however stuck in the mud it may be. It can only go so far in the search for gold among the dross. The audience will sense a false note of preachiness in striving too hard to be “constructive”. Those are problems in responding to Denis.

The main difference between my time and today is that when the Troubles started we had so little airtime. Then in 1975 Radio Ulster made an unconfident start and expanded news based content only gradually. The absurd Sinn Fein ban followed, accompanied by their growing emergence on the political scene. Inevitably this left all broadcasters open to attack from opposite sides  either as censors or rebels against legitimate authority. For many years the incident level was so high that we chronicled the Troubles more than have the time and frankly the energy  to explain what was really  happening to society. An occupational hazard of local broadcasting is to keep topping up or updating what we know, assuming that everybody knows the basic score. We can’t keep going back to basics every day from Heaven’s sake.  Yet very often it’s the fundamentals that are either poorly understood, or are changing in ways that are not yet clear, particularly  in a divided community which has gone through so much as a whole, but differently according to community  and district.

Today, BBC NI is more dominant than ever as a resource, in spite of  the proliferation of other media.  It is incomparably a better service and better funded than during the height of the  Troubles, despite present cuts. Nevertheless  I’m proud  of the pioneering we did in the early decades in all areas including journalism, arts  features and remarkably,  network drama.  In those days people were often reluctant to appear even to talk about history and local heritage in case it would somehow expose them to attack or criticism. Somehow my colleagues got the job done.

The forthcoming post Brexit agenda will be complex and confusing but hopefully less life threatening than in the bad old days.  In GB Brexit has opened up a chasm of difference which is threatening the very survival of the state and imposing new strains on BBC impartiality.

In its own unique situation, BBC NI has experienced similar challenges for decades. Today the agenda is less about life and death and more about the quality of life.  The way ahead of for less reactive comment  in the name of accountability and more searching for solutions which have not yet emerged into politics. To succeed it will need the cooperation of a wider cast. The agendas of poverty, health and education are not yet led by politicians. It took the RHI scandal  to expose the  stark deficiencies of governance in their full horror. There are scores  perhaps hundreds of people who have better prescriptions. Many of them are in the public service and are therefore inhibited  from speaking. A few are independent and able to do so . Many others recently retired should have no such inhibitions. Critical reporting of Assembly committees can produce sharper stories.

Denis Bradley’s repeated claims ought to motivate all the local broadcasters beyond the rote PR response.

BBC NI should dispel the impression of coasting along well worn tramlines.  New energy and innovation  are needed.   So is a fuller response from civil society, to create a wider public debate that raises sights rather than depresses  them.  Denis Bradley should tell the fearful to stop acting like wet lettuces and speak out at last.