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.