Northern Ireland

John Manley: Contrasting responses to broadcasting controversies on either side of the border speaks volumes about different attitudes

Ryan Tubridy and Stephen Nolan
Ryan Tubridy and Stephen Nolan Ryan Tubridy and Stephen Nolan

It's sheer coincidence that scandals have broke on either side of the border involving the two highest paid broadcasters in each respective part of the island.

In lots of ways, the Ryan Tubridy and Stephen Nolan cases are completely different, yet there are also many similarities. Arguably, the most glaring difference is the response, both from within each respective broadcast institution and from the political class and public more generally.

This speaks volumes about the difference between the two parts of the country.

The Republic is an open, dynamic society, with a healthy media industry, where competing interests ensure controversy can't be suppressed.

Read more: Stephen Nolan apologises on air following revelations by Irish News

The north is somewhat different – it's a small entity where most sectors, including the media, often struggle to reach critical mass. This enables the state sponsored broadcaster to become too powerful and pervasive.

When news that Tubridy's lavish salary was bigger than had initially been disclosed, there was widespread, justifiable outrage. The taoiseach and tánaiste made interventions, resignations were tendered, and senior RTÉ executives were summoned before Oireachtas committees to be grilled by TDs.

There was plenty of grandstanding and gratuitous invective, but it was an example of how transparency and accountability for public bodies works in a liberal democracy. In the aftermath of the scandal, sales of TV licences in the Republic have plummeted as the population demonstrates its collective outrage at the arrogance of RTÉ management and Tubridy's apparent avarice.

Read more

  • Tom Kelly on Stephen Nolan: Licence payers and tax payers deserve and are entitled to more transparency
  • Veteran broadcaster Ronan Kelly says Stephen Nolan 'stonewalling' raises questions about how BBC grills politicians

The ramifications of the scandal will likely be felt for years to come. Change was already afoot at RTÉ but it will now be accelerated and likely be much more far-reaching.

Contrast this response with that of BBCNI to the revelations regarding allegations that Stephen Nolan sent sexually explicit images to staff working on his television programme and made disparaging comments about colleagues.

The policy has been to stonewall and obfuscate rather than to address what would be an extremely serious matter in any workplace, never mind when it involves someone paid handsomely from the public purse and tasked with scrutinising the behaviour of politicians and public figures.

The BBC has declined to say what the upshot of its investigation was, beyond saying "appropriate action" was taken, while Mr Nolan has yet to refute the claim made by a former member of his team.

What is unquestionable is that the revelations have generated huge interest, while also fuelling debate about professional standards and the public interest.

If the Stormont institutions were in place it's very possible the controversy would be raised in the assembly chamber or discussed at committee, perhaps entailing a wider debate about the merits of a publicly-funded broadcaster stirring the pot daily and reducing every issue to a binary dispute conducted in a bear pit atmosphere.

It's moot whether such antics – both the radio show's content and the explicit pictures – would be tolerated if this were the BBC in Britain. The Martin Bashir case and allegations of audience bias on Question Time, even the Huw Edwards affair, have all been addressed in a transparent manner.

However, BBCNI has yet to apply the same standards and continues to duck the sort of scrutiny on which Stephen Nolan has built his reputation. By failing to decisively address this crisis, the broadcaster risks undermining its own integrity and a brand whose stature relies on its audience's trust.

Read more: 

  • Stephen Nolan 'driven' by growing up in the Shankill area of Belfast as an only child
  • Stephen Nolan sent unsolicited 'sexually explicit' images of disgraced reality TV star Stephen Bear to work colleagues