Analysis: Stephen Nolan revelations highlight a crisis of confidence in BBC Northern Ireland

Nolan is a brand BBC Northern Ireland has invested in and nurtured to ensure it can compete with the detritus of social media

The BBC has questions to answer over the Nolan brand
The BBC has questions to answer over the Nolan brand The BBC has questions to answer over the Nolan brand

Three words sit at the heart of the BBC’s mission as a public service broadcaster. It exists to inform, educate and entertain. They were first articulated by the dour Scot, John Reith, who was its founding director general, and they have stood the test of time.

But the concept of ‘public service’ in broadcasting has come under increasing pressure as new technologies, streaming and social media have eroded audiences. The funding model – a tax on everyone with a television – is increasingly unsustainable.

The BBC – for many so long the epitome of public service broadcasting – has struggled. On an increasingly short lead from government, the integrity of its news and current affairs output has been undermined by what many see as subservience to ministers; it has become embroiled in rows over pay; and its internal processes have been questioned over the handling of a series of scandals.

In the South, RTE has run a similar gauntlet – with confidence in the state broadcaster at an all-time low.

BBC Northern Ireland is not without its troubles too. Given the nature of society here, its decision making has always been subject to challenge. But in recent years the stories coming out of Broadcasting House, played out on the newsstands and in tribunals, have been shocking.

Of a different order still is the continuing controversy over the power wielded by one entity within the BBC – namely the Nolan franchise. And it is important to note that this is not about an individual. Nolan is a brand BBC Northern Ireland has invested in and nurtured to ensure it can compete with the detritus of social media.

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On the face of it, Nolan’s approach to broadcasting should be anathema to the BBC. But the ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ approach has served him and the broadcaster well. Nolan makes a fortune and has been showered with awards. His BBC Northern Ireland bosses have bathed in his reflected glory.

But at what cost? The BBC has a duty to explore every aspect of society here. But an increasing number of people – not just the ‘usual suspects’ – believe the Nolan brand has exploited the divisions within society here in pursuit of ratings.

It has given undue prominence to those who have made it their life’s worth to sow division, and it has treated those who have a legitimate mandate with contempt.

Read more: 

  • Veteran broadcaster Ronan Kelly says Stephen Nolan 'stonewalling' raises questions about how BBC grills politicians
  • Former Sinn Féin MLA calls on BBC to reveal disparaging messages made by Stephen Nolan's team

The response in Broadcasting House to legitimate complaints has been to batten down the hatches, and hide behind the ludicrous claim that Nolan must be doing something right if both sides are complaining about him.

But it is clear from the revelations reported in The Irish News that there is more at issue here than a presenter who gets on people’s nerves.

The Nolan franchise appears to be operating like a state within a state, and at war with other parts of BBC Northern Ireland.

The abuse of respected broadcasters such as William Crawley stretches the term un-collegial to breaking point, we read of accusations of bullying, the sharing of inappropriate images and messages, of BBC staff being counselled for work-related stress.

On top of that there are allegations which cut to the heart of the BBC’s integrity – the ramping up of controversy on Nolan Live by staff, not legitimate members of the audience.

Read more: Tom Kelly on Stephen Nolan: Licence payers and tax payers deserve and are entitled to more transparency

The BBC management hides behind the usual response: “The BBC has established processes in place to deal with any workplace-related issues and concerns.”

But these are not just concerns about workplace matters, they are concerns about whether or not BBC Northern Ireland is discharging its duty to “act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

As has been seen in the controversy over Huw Edwards, few now trust the BBC to deal properly when issues are raised. Concern over the Nolan franchise has been coming to a head for quite some time. Another bland BBC statement is not enough.

Yes, the BBC has many critics, but in failing to adequately answer their concerns, the BBC is demonstrating that, once again, its biggest enemy is itself.