Denis Bradley: Quality of debate and analysis needs to improve
My parents were fond of saying that when you needed a policeman there was never one around. I am beginning to think that when you need good journalists, there are few around.
I blame my father for my addiction to news and current affairs. My mother was intrigued and often disgusted that he could listen five or more times a day to what she considered was the same news. Even more annoyed when he ‘shushed’ everyone that the news was on or he didn’t half hear her for reading the newspaper.
I have become my father. I used to put it all down to the genes but recently and especially in the last few months I can’t get some of my former disinterested friends to miss out on the political debates and the main current affairs programmes. If orange has become the new black, politics has become the new Coronation Street.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the range, depth and quality of current affairs coverage and commentary here in the north and about the north, stands out as poor fare. And I am not referring to the coverage and analysis that the DUP has been getting in England. I have some sympathy for the DUP on that front but overall the judgment has to be that they brought much of it on themselves. It is the coverage of what is happening here at a time when the whole of the political world as we know it is hurdling through space at warp speed.
At the crunch moments, when I want and need insight, analysis, quality debate and considered opinion I will go elsewhere. I will go to Radio Four, RTE or some of the British papers, to name but a few. Coverage here will give me the same few voices who cover every subject and every outlet and whose political analysis and track record could be doing with a bit of scrutiny itself. But the tin cap will be Dinny from Dromore and Lizzie from Larne. Even knowledgeable commentators have to give way to Dinny and Lizzie because the success of a programme is judged by the number of phone calls from the public. That is the benchmark, even though everyone knows that it is the same small group of people who phone all the programmes.
Of late, radio has sunk to a new low. We have former politicians and party activists purporting to be analysts and commentators. The party feeds them enough gossip and titbits, allowing deniability when required, while allowing the politicians dodge their public role.
Stephen Nolan has to take much of the responsibility for the BBC mess. By far the most capable current affairs journalist, he couldn’t decide between being a serious journalist or an outright populist, nor between Radio Five and Ulster. His television specials are farcical current affairs and poor light entertainment. Falling between two stools has done damage to himself and has damaged the authority of the BBC. We have to give thanks for Spotlight and The View but they are seasonal and appear, at times, under resourced.
UTV has shrunk to a nightly half hour and an odd special. The impression is that the minimum that is required by the licensing authorities is what is and what will be provided. Long lost is the UTV reputation as a worthy opposition and alternative to the BBC.
Some, maybe all, of our newspapers are struggling commercially and a few of them try to hold on to standards. But outside of a handful of good journalists and columnists, we have not grown the number and quality of writers that the fertile soil could have and should have produced.
I saw the President, Michael D Higgins, say that his greatest disappointment and annoyance with the media was that they increasingly assumed that the people of this country couldn’t understand or appreciate the complexity of many issues. He said that the assumption lead to a dumbing down of issues and analysis. On the contrary, he claimed, the people were more than capable of grasping and understanding all kinds of matters.
If Michael D thinks that standards are slipping in the south, he is lucky not to be overly exposed to some of the stuff that we have to tolerate up here.