Northern Ireland’s dominant parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, have been boycotting the Province’s most influential radio programme in open frustration at an outlet which has frequently embarrassed the two parties.
The DUP boycott began in response to Stephen Nolan’s weeks of detailed coverage of the RHI scandal, including an explosive televised interview with former DUP minister Jonathan Bell in which he levelled multiple allegations at colleagues over their involvement in the scandal.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has denied that it has been engaged in a formal boycott but has for weeks been notable for its absence from the programme during a time of intense political upheaval.
The party has also denied that it has gone further and orchestrated an online campaign urging supporters to boycott the programme – despite the fact that many of its members have been publicly urging a boycott.
In recent months, Mr Nolan has been facing a three-pronged attack: A DUP refusal to go on his daily Radio Ulster radio show for more than a year, a more recent decision by Sinn Féin to join the DUP in not participating and then in recent weeks a campaign – which BBC sources believe Sinn Féin has helped orchestrate – on social media urging a public boycott.
Mr Nolan’s radio and TV programmes have long been controversial, due to what critics claim is his ‘shock jock’ style, but for more than a decade they have drawn consistently big audiences, due to an ability to break major stories and connect complex developments to lives of ordinary people.
Three years ago former Irish News editor Nick Garbutt described the Nolan Show as “a high risk, high octane affair. Live radio is always fraught but, with the edgy topics and a volatile and often passionate listenership, when feelings run high it can be a minefield.” For years, politicians have weighed up whether it is better to go on the programme, given its huge audience, or whether the risk of falling apart under aggressive questioning means that it is better to hand the airtime to a rival.
But although some parties would not participate at points when they judged it was not in their interests to do so, for more than a decade all the major parties were regulars on the programme.
That began to change noticeably in mid-2016 after Mr Nolan’s editor, David Gordon, turned from poacher to gamekeeper, taking over as the joint spokesman for the DUP and Sinn Féin Executive.
Then, as the Executive then began to implode in December of that year and into January, the DUP moved to boycott a programme which had for weeks led with revelation after revelation about the party’s handling of the RHI scheme.
An exception was made for a pre-election broadcast where Simon Hamilton discussed the party’s manifesto and two DUP MPs have gone on in an individual capacity rather than being sent on by the party press office.
When asked why the DUP was refusing to participate in the programme, whether it was to do with the Nolan Show’s coverage of RHI and how long has it been going on for, the party did not comment.
However, a DUP source with knowledge of the party’s thinking on the issue disputed that the party was engaged in a “boycott” but accepted that the party had rarely agreed to its representatives going on the programme since its coverage of the RHI scandal.
Last month it emerged that the DUP had reported the Nolan Show to Ofcom, which regulates broadcast media. The complaint relates to some of Mr Nolan’s coverage of the unfolding scandal in December 2016.
It is understood that the DUP is particularly unhappy with Mr Nolan over his interview with Mr Bell and subsequent coverage of the former DUP minister’s dramatic televised allegations.
On the first day of the public inquiry into the scandal, a portion from Mr Nolan’s introduction to that interview was played to the inquiry, with counsel for the inquiry David Scoffield QC describing it as “gripping television” for many people.
He said: “It’s probably unprecedented in contemporary Northern Ireland politics as an example of a former minister turning on senior party colleagues, including his party leader, the then first minister.
“It’s not an understatement to suggest that the political impact of the interview was explosive, and one interesting aspect of the inquiry’s investigation has been the provision to it of text messages exchanged at the time Mr Bell’s interview was being aired...and the provision of email communications in the following days between politicians and officials as the fallout from the interview began to be managed.”
A BBC source claimed that the DUP strategy had “backfired” because “huge swathes of DUP voters listen to the Nolan show every day”, meaning that in the absence of a DUP representative on the programme to reassure the party’s supporters as news of a potential DUP-Sinn Féin deal emerged last month “things spiralled out of control as a result”.
The source also claimed that it was “an open secret that the different factions within the DUP are constantly briefing Nolan”.
But DUP sources indicated that the party was relaxed about the situation.
In recent months, Sinn Féin has also increasingly refused to take part in the Nolan Show.
When contacted by the News Letter earlier this week, the party denied that it was engaged in a boycott of any media outlet.
Yesterday Máirtín Ó Muilleoir appeared on the programme, seemingly confirming that if a boycott did exist it is now at an end.
However, in recent weeks there has also been a vocal online campaign urging members of the public to boycott the programme.
Although there have been individuals from many backgrounds who have backed the recent boycott call, republican Twitter accounts – many of them anonymous – have been to the forefront of the campaign. When asked if Sinn Féin was boycotting the programme or involved in the online campaign, a Sinn Féin spokesman said: “There’s no Sinn Féin boycott or involvement in that campaign.”
A BBC member of staff said they believed that Sinn Féin was involved in the campaign and that it had been responsible for “vile nastiness” targeted at Mr Nolan “because they cannot control him”.
However, a series of Sinn Féin members – under their own names – have been spreading the call. Among them are Derren Ó Brádaigh, Stephen Todd, Councillor Sarah Holland, Aaron MacDaibhéid and Eóin McShane.
The republican objection to Mr Nolan is two-fold: That he allegedly played a part in the collapse of the DUP-Sinn Féin deal by giving considerable airtime to unionist opponents of the DUP in the absence of any DUP representative, and that he joked about Gregory Campbell’s ‘curry my yogurt’ jibe about Sinn Féin use of Irish in the Assembly.
In 2014, Mr Nolan asked Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile if the phrase was “a wee bit funny”. When he said “no”, Mr Nolan replied: “Did you not have a wee chuckle...honestly?” before repeating the phrase as the audience laughed.
In a tweet last month, Sinn Féin press officer Seán Mag Uidhir claimed that the broadcaster had “tried to humiliate” his colleague.
The party did not respond when asked why it was raising the issue more than three years after the event.
Last January, DUP MP Gregory Campbell warned Stephen 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.
The News Letter asked the BBC how long the parties had been boycotting the show, whether they had given reasons for it, whether there had been any pressure put on BBC management and whether the BBC stood by the show.
In a brief statement, the corporation said: “The Nolan show provides an inclusive forum for audience-led debate about a range of issues affecting BBC audiences. It also includes contributions from elected representatives.”
l Morning View, page 10