The BBC has robustly defended its exposé of the biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution after a DUP MLA launched an extraordinary attack on the corporation.
Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale accused the BBC of having “caused regime change” and claimed that its journalism had actually been motivated by an unspecified desire to attack Arlene Foster for her “strong values”.
The abuse of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has been known to the DUP for several years after a whistleblower approached Arlene Foster in 2013 and Sinn Fein has been aware of the scale of the losses to taxpayers for a year, since another whistleblower approached Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s office last January.
Although some review work has been going on over recent months, it was only after the BBC’s Spotlight programme brought the full scale of the situation to wider public attention at the start of last month that the Executive has feverishly attempted to claw back the vast overspend.
That programme was followed up by weeks of further revelations by Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show, the News Letter and other media outlets.
In a post on her MLA Facebook page, Mrs Hale said: “This has to be the first time in the history of democracy that a Public Service Broadcaster (Biased BBC) has caused regime change.
“The relentless attack on Mrs Foster which was instigated by Nolan had nothing to do with the RHI, it was because of her strong values and her ability to stand up to him and Sinn Fein.
“All veterans should bear in mind that Mrs Foster steadfastly refused to fund Legacy Inquests into Army/RUC shootings unless the killings by SF/PIRA were given equal scrutiny. This is why the Shinners hated her and wanted rid of her. We all owe her our support in the weeks ahead.”
Stephen Nolan, who is on holiday in the US, told the News Letter that his programme’s work had been firmly in the public interest.
He said: “Journalists aren’t always popular with people in authority.
“That can make our job difficult. But it also demonstrates why good journalism matters – and is necessary. My role at the BBC is about getting at the facts and giving people their say on issues affecting their everyday lives.”
Earlier this week, DUP MP Gregory Campbell warned Mr Nolan on-air – as the presenter was stating that he was “digging” into the RHI scandal – that “digging works both ways”. When pressed on the comment, he denied that it was a threat.
A BBC spokeswoman said: “We remain satisfied that the design, operation and potential cost of the RHI scheme raised issues of legitimate public interest.
“Our role has been to report, investigate and facilitate debate about what happened.
“We have reflected different opinions and given BBC audiences the opportunity to make their views known.
“Everything that we have done has been based on the BBC’s core editorial principles of fairness, accuracy and impartiality. These principles and the professionalism of our staff will continue to guide our coverage of the RHI story.”
Mrs Hale is not the first politician to attack journalists over their coverage of the RHI debacle.
Last month Brian Haslett, an employee in Arlene Foster’s Enniskillen office, praised the Belfast Telegraph’s front page that day, which had no mention of the RHI scandal and called for a boycott of the News Letter because of our RHI investigative work.
His tweet was endorsed by two DUP MLAs, Gary Middleton and Philip Logan, before the party distanced itself from the message.
And earlier this week Sinn Fein senator Niall O’Donnghaile appeared to ask whether the News Letter’s political editor – who has also been covering the scandal in detail for more than a month – had been arrested.
The former Belfast Lord Mayor, who is now an Irish senator, tweeted on Monday: “Has [Sam McBride] had his collar felt one wonders?????”.
When Mr McBride asked why Mr O’Donnghaile was asking whether he had been arrested, he replied: “Perhaps not in the conventional sense??”.