Thursday, February 28, 2008

“As my colleague was just saying…” (Or why consensus makes me puke)

To those of you not from our wee province or not familiar with our television schedules, once every month the BBC decides to drop its Thursday night political debate show Question Time for viewers on this side of the Irish Sea. In its place we get Let's Talk, a pathetically poor attempt by the folks in Ormeau Avenue to bring the Question Time format to Belfast. Recently I’ve started to wonder is the programme just another example of substandard regional TV or a microcosm of a society which has forgotten the importance of dissent?

The framework for the show is the exact same as its cross channel counterpart: four panellists, one presenter and a studio audience. Unfortunately, that's where the similarities to Question Time end. Everything about Let's Talk is dire. The intro music is appalling, the title sequence shoddy, presenter Mark Carruthers long ago pinched Pat Kenny's crown for being Ireland’s blandest man and the fed-up audience always seem to look as if they have been frogmarched into the studio at gunpoint. The most dismal part of the programme though is the panel and last week's line up saw the series reach an all time low with Henry Kelly, Arlene Foster, Margaret Ritchie and Mike Nesbitt keeping the seats warm. But whereas David Dimbleby spends most of his time trying to antagonise his guests (albeit in the misleadingly soft dulcet tones of BBC English), Mark Carruthers has never led me to believe that he seeks anything other than an easy night’s pay. Last Thursday's edition was no different. Corruption has been the big issue in the province over the past week or so. Surely then one would imagine that the usual niceties would be put aside and we would finally get to see a bloodbath at Blackstaff. Yes? No.

Henry Kelly, the ex Irish Times journalist and game show host, commented that while the recent flood of stories on the local political scene about dodgy expenses and jobs for the boys (or as one well known Member of the Legislative Assembly referred to them, "unfounded allegations" and "innuendo") might be bad it is at least a lot better than what we were once used to, namely the troubles/war. Mike Nesbitt’s contribution was little better. The former UTV Live presenter (who these days can't seem to form a sentence without using the phrase 'victims and survivors') said that our current disputes represented a change in Northern Irish politics and a shift away from our old ways. How the DUP and SDLP ministers sitting between the two men must have been tittering inside at being handed such blatant get out of jail cards. Of course, none of us should be surprised.

First of all, the attitude of Kelly and Nesbitt really makes you think about the standards that exist in local media circles. Here are two prominent long serving figures of Irish journalism brushing aside the sort of story that most hacks in any other country would foam at the mouth for. You would be hard pressed to find a journalist from Britain - past or present - that would have treated this story so casually when their prey was lined up directly in front of them. I simply cannot envisage Jeremy Paxman in this same situation saying 'oh well old chaps, all this cronyism might be bad but sure isn't better than you blowing each others brains out'. Secondly, it is a matter of urgency that we quickly ditch the idea that the choice open to the people of Northern Ireland is either a) terrorist violence or b) wholesale political corruption. Despite what the Kellys and Nesbitts of this world may think, corruption is not - or at least should not - be a factor in ‘normal’ politics. Politics should be about, to borrow a line from Billy Bragg, schoolbooks and beds in hospitals. Political journalism, that which both of these men are best known for, should be about the pursuit of truth, asking difficult questions and holding public figures to account. Except here. Just as Robert Fisk once said it was virtually impossible in 1993 to find a journalist willing to put his neck on the line and offer any criticism of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, so too does this same unwritten rule forbidding anything other than childish enthusiasm for the power-sharing executive permeate our own media.

When Mark Carruthers next combs his perfect side parting, climbs to the podium and once again attempts to find consensus between four nondescript panellists do not look upon it as merely a case of bad TV. BBC Northern Ireland is only reflecting what is going on in the local political arena. Outside of the studio sectarian differences and policy disagreements are, along with questionable finances, getting swept under the carpet in a province where debate and opposition are being sacrificed in exchange for an endless list of ‘historic moments’ and quaint photoshoots featuring sniggering old enemies to which we will all try our best to be excited and proclaim that we could never have imagined it happening a few years back. In this climate few in the media, politics or society in general want to appear to be the spoilsports. The aim of everyone is to steer away from discord. Our goal is to find common ground. In the Assembly almost everyone is a member of one of the four governing parties. Opposition to the now unified green/orange sectarian power bloc is so miniscule that it is ineffective. An ‘elected dictatorship’, if you want to bring a touch of tabloid sensationalism to it all.

I warn you, this is not natural. What Professor Paul Bew has described as a “Hitler-Stalin Pact, Ulster style” is untenable and the sooner the whole damn thing comes crashing down - which it inevitably will - the better for us all. The troubles are over, done with, gone as Gerry Adams said almost a decade ago now. There is no fear of going back to the bad old days. Therefore the end of the Provo-Paisley Pact, far from being a disaster, would be a relief and provide new opportunities. It would free us from the shackles of the current consociational state of affairs and would create the space for ‘normal politics’ (that strange phenomenon everyone claims to desire) to finally take root. Almost one year has now passed since our Molotov-Ribbentrop moment and virtually nothing of any substance has taken place. The proof is now too overwhelming for anyone to ignore - the old ways simply will not do.

One last thing. If you feel like being part of the studio audience for Let’s Talk you can call the BBC Northern Ireland ticket line on 0870 333 1918. Now, now. Don’t all rush at once. There’ll be enough tickets for everyone. Of that I can assure you.


Jenny Muir said...

This one was particularly awful. I turned it off. Probably should go along and ask a question instead, though.

Anonymous said...

This is a superb piece - I for one have been totally angered by the lack of reporting about the corruption up at Stormont.

They all have their snouts in the trough - back slapping and expence claims and general riping the tax payer off has made me angry.

The media do not want to rock the boat up at Stormont and so are just reporting the stories of corruption - IPJ just went too far they had to have a go.

The debate with Conor Bradford and Gregory Campbell was an interesting one to say the least -
He wanted to go further but seemed he was restrained - Newton Emerson has already said the BBC are the 12th department at Stormont.

I am angered greatly by the scandal - time to end double/triple/quadruple jobing - either they are councillors or MLA or MP and all expenses - rents - and donations in the public domain!

Rant over

Democratic-Centre said...

It's almost as if it's a consensus of a political-void in that neither DUP-SF have agreed much anyway, so it's just like we are massaging this body to keep it alive long enough to muzzle extremists. Consociationalism is itself grandstanding of a little bunch of political ethnic-elites.

Much of what has happened in the past has been socially constructed and there is a belief that we can now socially construct a new Northern Ireland through the two governments' new political apparatus. Stormont just doesn't suit old politics for new days, it was outdated ages ago.

Look at the arrogance of Robbo and McGuinness, through to IPJ and even Kieran McCarthy of Alliance paying his wife higher than market prices for rent. Time for those involved in that old bitter bath to go.

One thing good about Northern Ireland's pysche is it's sense of honesty. So having been involved with Alliance when I now visit its website and see Kieran issuing out C-Diff health care concern, my response is 'fuck off Kieran and just go pay your wife with public money'.

But change will be slow. At this stage, given the lack of choice out there, more time is needed to gather and grow new ideas for political life here. So, fatten the whole lot for a good slaughter. And the whole lot should be knocked out. Snouts in the troughs is correct.

Mike Nesbitt came across completely trite like his altruism has came into fruition after his journalism love affair has lined his pockets enough to cast his eyes further.

Anonymous said...

This is a superbly well-observed piece. Let's Talk is appalling and for all the reasons stated here. Increasingly, I think the problem is the presenter. He is lightweight, has no political teeth, and rambles half-giggling throughout the programme. We need a heavyweight presenter of the quality of Dimbleby who can ask a question in 5 seconds and still destroy a minister's point with it. Mark would take 90 seconds to ask a pointless question. Why does he look so smug?

Johnny Guitar said...

Slightly paradoxical that in a post dealing with my contempt for harmony I get four responses from people all declaring their agreement with me. Anyhow, I am nevertheless flattered by some of the comments above and chuffed to see the site get a mention on Slugger. Someone is reading after all...

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