The Nolan Show dominates the North’s airwaves but is it hard-hitting or just hardline?

Critics say amount of airtime given by Stephen Nolan to some unionists stirs division

Ask Prof Peter Shirlow about BBC Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show, and he answers with a story about an elderly man called "wee Archie" who lived at the end of his street.

Each weekday morning, the man began a walk at 8.55am, returning exactly 90 minutes later. One day, the Belfast academic asked his neighbour why he did so. "Wee Archie, from a unionist 'prod' [Protestant] background" said, 'Aye, I go out when she listens to Nolan, I'm a happy person'."

In recent weeks, The Nolan Show, and its presenter, Stephen Nolan, has faced scrutiny over the amount of airtime it gives to "hardline" unionist voices.

With 150,000 listeners a day, according to internal BBC figures, Nolan, the BBC’s fifth highest paid presenter, earning over £405,000 (€485,300) from the licence fee last year, matters.

Faced with the criticism, the presenter has hit back, saying critics are trying to censor "certain voices", particularly Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister and loyalist blogger, Jamie Bryson.

For Shirlow, the director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, who has long researched unionist attitudes, The Nolan Show, however, has become a “home for the hardcore”.

“There’s clearly good journalism in that he’s exposing issues. . . but it seems to me you’re finding an aggression in society through that programme, you’re digging into an aggression which evidence tells us doesn’t exist in the way that it did,” he said.

“Our survey showed two-thirds of pro-union people are pro-marriage equality and over 50 per cent are pro-choice: where is that voice of unionism? Where is the balance? Radio is still a powerful medium.

“If you don’t have fair representation, then you create in the public discourse attitudes about that community which I just don’t believe to be true and I can evidence not to be true. There’s a home for the hardcore there. There are people I know who are hardcore loyalists and republicans who just listen to it all the time.”

Biggest show

Lauded as the "biggest show in the country" by its host, he also presents a current affairs TV show on BBC One Northern Ireland, Nolan Live, and a programme for BBC Radio 5 Live in England.

An online petition, signed by 13,000 people, calling for the cancellation of the morning radio show last year was described by the BBC as an attempt to “smear and censor” its journalism.

BBC Northern Ireland sources have privately expressed concern that stories on The Nolan Show are “sensationalised” and said this is “causing division” within wider society, but none have gone on the record.

Last month, nationalist politician, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole challenged Nolan live on-air for giving a “media platform” to contributors like Allister and Bryson, claiming they “distort and inflate” issues.

O'Toole's criticism came just three days after Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was forced to leave a reconciliation event in north Belfast when a hoax bomb was left outside the building.

Stormont justice minister and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long accused the BBC of giving an "open mic" to those opposed to the UK/EU agreed Northern Ireland Protocol.

Allister, a right-wing politician opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and the protocol, holds only one seat in the Assembly, and has appeared on the radio show “four days out five” one week last year, according to O’Toole.

Bryson, a fixture at anti-protocol rallies and editor of a unionist website, has no electoral mandate. He received just 167 votes when he ran in the 2011 local elections in North Down

In the heated on-air debate, Nolan claimed O’Toole was “jumping on a bandwagon that wants to censor certain voices”.

The SDLP politician, who set up an all-party group on press freedom in 2020, insisted he did not support “any individual being banned or censored, especially on a public service funded programme”.

He told The Irish Times: “I can’t repeat enough that I really don’t think that there should be a policy of not having certain people on; I just think there should be transparency over how editorial choices are made.”

He added: “I do think it’s true to say that the Nolan programme and Stephen himself are very good at engaging the public with news in a way that can be very positive.

“Because of the nature of society here, there will always be the need for a balance to be struck,” he said. “I felt in good conscience I had to at least ask the question of the [frequency] of some people appearing.

“I was asked on-air by Stephen Nolan to provide data [on appearances] and by definition I can’t provide data because the BBC itself doesn’t gather the data. Certainly there have been multiple days when Jim Allister, who currently represents a party which has one MLA, has appeared.

“BBC output is extraordinarily controlled usually in terms of balance and has to follow policies more broadly when it comes to, for example, compiling the number of guests on political discussion programmes,” he said.

Tremendous broadcaster

Political commentator Brian Feeney said the Alliance leader's intervention was a "shot across the bows" for the BBC. "It was important she [Long] came out because otherwise certain people could claim it's only nationalists who want to close voices down," he said.

Feeney added there was “absolutely no doubt” that Nolan is a tremendous broadcaster: “He’s the guy who delivers the ratings. But I don’t think the programme brings any benefits; on the contrary, it has a malign effect on the politics and on community relations because of the temperature that’s raised every morning.

“The fact it boosts people who get less than 2 per cent of the vote and gives them a huge platform, or in the case of Jamie Bryson, he got 167 votes in total, for them to be on repeatedly is completely unacceptable.”

The North’s two biggest political parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are currently not directly engaging with the Nolan programmes.

The Irish Times asked the BBC to provide figures on the number of appearances made by Allister and Bryson over the past six months on the Nolan radio and TV shows. It was unable to disclose this information.

In a detailed series of questions, both Nolan and the BBC were asked to respond to concerns that the alleged “disproportionate airtime given to certain individuals with more hardline unionist views” is having a divisive impact on society.

Both were also asked if they believed that the BBC’s strict editorial guidelines on balance and impartiality are followed in relation to The Nolan Show, and to respond to allegations that BBC Northern Ireland is concerned about the programme.

In reply, the BBC briefly said: “We provide BBC listeners with opportunities for encounter, critical engagement and debate. This will sometimes involve issues and views that are contested. Our aim in all of this is to reflect local society in its different aspects and diversity, something that is always work in progress.”

There was no reply from Nolan.

Allister dismissed the criticism, with a spokesman insisting that the TUV leader is "effectively excluded" from other mainstream BBC Radio Ulster programmes, such as Talkback, Evening Extra and Good Morning Ulster.

“The reality is that those expressing so-called ‘concerns’ believe they have a right to dictate the boundaries of political debate. They do not. Freedom of speech is a fundamental in any society and it is deeply ironic that no such concerns about ‘hardline’ views are being articulated about the media coverage afforded to Sinn Féin.”

Loyalist activist Bryson also rejected charges that he gets disproportionate airtime compared with other unelected representatives, saying “default hostility” exists towards people like him and Allister.

Many unelected people appear on The Nolan Show, said Bryson: “Some very openly identified as nationalists appear substantially more than I do. People do not complain about those who could be viewed as very hardline nationalist.

“In my view, all of this works on the premise that unionist and loyalist community are too stupid to hear views which are put forward by me and Jim Allister, because they may agree with them.

“That’s very dehumanising to my community. People’s actual fear is that those in the unionist community will agree with me and Jim Allister. If they had no fear of people agreeing with us, then they wouldn’t want to silence us.”

Strong opinions

Some people interested in the effect of The Nolan Show will not speak on the record, though they have strong opinions. “It is toxic and it doesn’t have to be like that,” said one occasional guest on the programme.

“There are programmes where you often have robust debate, BBC Talkback would be one of them, but you don’t have it in the bear pit, often manufactured way. But there’s part of me that admires Nolan, because I think he’s very, very good at what he does.”

However, the North does not need controversies to be “fermented”, said the source: “The disproportionate airtime given to Allister and Bryson is frankly outrageous. It has no electoral justification whatsoever.”

Some of Northern Ireland’s political parties refuse to put people up for interview by Nolan: “[He] does try to get members of other political parties on, and they’ll say no. That exacerbates the problem. I don’t think parties help themselves by boycotting him because that then gives disproportionate airtime to Allister who rarely has anything constructive to say.

“So I admire him as a broadcaster but I don’t like what he does because the ‘Nolanisation’ of society, which is what I call it, is designed to highlight the negative [and] confrontational and while Nolan at his core is not responsible for that – in some ways you could argue he is shining a light on it – he still nonetheless is exaggerating it by giving [airtime] to people like Bryson,” he said.

Communications expert Tim McKane also sought appearance numbers from the broadcaster: "Nigel Farage was on BBC Question Time disproportionately and the more often I began to hear more hardline voices on Nolan, the more often I began to question it. It wasn't just an irritation. I want to see Northern Ireland move forward.

“If you’re on longer than your competitors, it makes a difference. PR companies will try to get their product on the BBC first because the brand is trusted to be non-commercial.

“Appearing on the BBC is a more powerful platform than any other in the UK. To prove that, there is the poll growth of Jim Allister. There is no other platform that is giving him the coverage to get people to know what he’s talking about.

“A 60-second ad on a peak programme on [commercial] radio is worth about £1,000 per minute. You then have a situation where Jim Allister is on for 10 minutes – that’s £10,000 worth of airtime,” he said.

Prof Colin Harvey of Queen's University Belfast, who has been targeted by online abuse following former Labour MP Kate Hoey's remarks about nationalist "activists" dominating many of the North's professional vocations, said he has "enormous respect" for journalists.

“I have solidarity with journalists doing difficult jobs here but in the wider context we’re now 24 years after the Good Friday Agreement. I think the big question for me, particularly in the area where I work in human rights and equality, is to make sure the voices that we’re hearing are fully reflective of the diversity of the multicultural society we inhabit. That’s true of any programming.

“The worry is where this all ends. We’re a post-conflict society, we have a past. We need to learn the lessons of the past. We know that words really, really matter here.

“How you frame debates, how you talk about people, really matters.”

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