Media a crucial player in the opposition function

15 December 2016

Given his large listener base and multi-layered approach to his own output, Stephen Nolan’s efforts in discerning the facts around the collapse of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme have surely catapulted the issue into the wider public consciousness.

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been investigating the scheme for a number of months now, its members putting a series of public officials through their paces. While its ongoing findings received not insignificant press coverage (both The Irish News and the News Letter pursued the issue with tenacity of late) the past week has seen the story mutate into something infinitely more pugilistic.

With the latest furore to grip the devolved institutions hurtling towards a climax, it is the fourth estate – rather than the newly minted Assembly Opposition – that has asserted itself most recently as the effective opponent of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Many people will undoubtedly tune into the interview that Nolan has recorded with former DETI Minister Jonathan Bell MLA, due to go out this evening and likely, as per the overseer of the “biggest show in the country”, to send “shock waves” through Northern Ireland’s establishment. That Nolan should trail this event with such vigour on his morning radio show is, of course, to be expected (what broadcaster does not seek to maximise ratings?) but, nevertheless, his present role offers a level of searching, yet populist, scrutiny that the Opposition parties have been unable to deploy.

Both the SDLP and the UUP continue to train an enthusiastic eye on the RHI’s inner workings, ready with criticism in seeking to shape a new dynamic. By comparison, the BBC seems to have the edge in gathering and presenting, in simple terms, the evidence, be it paper trail or testimony. After all, even when bound by legal and public interest rules, Nolan is a figure more accessible and, dare we say, exciting than the forensic review of the Auditor General, the relentless questioning of the PAC or the considered answers of senior civil servants.