DUP retracts attacks on Stephen Nolan’s RHI coverage, saying he did his job ‘well’

The DUP’s most powerful backroom figure has retracted his party’s complaint about BBC presenter Stephen Nolan which led to a three-year boycott of his programme.

Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 9:17 pm
The DUP’s chief executive, Timothy Johnston, accepted that BBC Presenter Stephen Nolan was “doing his job well”

The DUP had been furious with Mr Nolan’s coverage of the RHI scandal in December 2016 and January 2017, when he broke a series of aspects of the unfolding story, thus piling pressure on the DUP.

The party claimed that the programme was unfairly targeting the party, with DUP MP Gregory Campbell warning Mr Nolan on air in January 2017– 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.

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That same month, Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale gave her support to a constituent’s denunciation of the BBC by posting it on her Facebook page with the words “well said”.

The comment 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”.

However, those claims have effectively been retracted by the DUP’s powerful chief executive, Timothy Johnston.

Witness statements released by the RHI Inquiry show that David Gordon, then the Stormont executive’s top spin doctor had emailed Mr Johnston on Monday, 11 December to say: “Nolan getting agitated over whether he’ll get an interview tomorrow. I’ve told him plans being finalised in morning, but we should probably say no...”.

Mr Johnston, then Arlene Foster’s spad, replied to say “I know what he needs and it’s not an interview! He’s (sic) better be ultra cautious before he starts kicking people’s reputations around.”

The inquiry asked Mr Johnston what he had meant by his comment, highlighting that in an earlier email Mr Gordon suggested to him that “a scary TJ call to Nolan might be in order”.

In a response submitted in February 2019 but only now made public, Mr Johnston told the inquiry that his comment “I know what he needs” was “a reference to the fact that in my view, at that time, Mr Nolan needed to be told that we would not be following his timeline on when interviews would be given and by whom”.

Mr Johnston said that he “believed he was attempting to kick the first minister’s reputation, and the party’s more generally”.

However, Mr Johnston – who has been the power behind the throne of every DUP leader for 15 years – added: “On reflection my email response was poorly drafted during a pressurised time ... In fairness to Mr Nolan he was doing his job well at the time.

“It is right and proper that there is a tension between the role of journalists and those who work for the government or indeed political parties.”

For about three years from early 2017, the DUP operated a virtual boycott of the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster, with few exceptions – and those mostly involving members speaking without authorisation from the party hierarchy.

However, in recent months, the party has again regularly partaken in the programme and it is now Sinn Féin which often refuses to be interviewed by the BBC presenter.

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