Below the Radar’s Peter Robinson biopic last night. Like the company’s programme about Gerry Adams, this was more hagiography than documentary. Robinson and Adams, two hugely controversial figures, portrayed as visionary statesmen.
Beyond the moral and factual arguments, this style of broadcasting raises a fundamental issue around the role of an independent media. Surely its purpose is not to show political figures exactly as they wish to be shown? That’s a job for PR consultants or party press offices.
I wonder whether the sagas around Robinson and Adams, over the past year, tell us as much about journalism in Northern Ireland than they do about the men themselves.
Twelve months ago the BBC in particular had sunk its teeth deep into Irisgate and the First Minister‘s financial affairs. It looked like Peter Robinson’s political career was at an end.
Those events were eclipsed by a vastly overblown policing and justice saga., just another in the long series of set pieces to afflict power-sharing here. As reporters flocked to Stormont, the British and Irish governments sought to bolster the DUP leader and keep talks at Hillsborough moving.
It’s clear that, at that point, Robinson was viewed as a pivotal figure. Adams likewise. As the NIO and others saw it, instability in either the DUP or Sinn Féin could put power-sharing at risk. Should Robinson fall, it was supposed, the Democratic Unionists would take a harder line.
Meanwhile the Conservative party convened the two main Northern Irish unionist parties at Hatfield for their infamous summit. Ostensibly the aim was to ensure policing and justice were devolved but ’unity’ was also on the agenda.
Roughly a year later the BBC, which initiated Peter Robinson’s problems with its Panorama programme, screens an hour of broadcasting completing his rehabilitation. In less than 12 months he has gone from cynical wide-boy with an eye on the main chance, to peace-making statesman.
The process has been replicated fairly faithfully in the newspapers. And something similar has happened with Adams - a man who plotted to cover up alleged sex abuse within his own family.
Did the media connive with the authorities to lay off Robinson and Adams? Did it swallow the rehabilitation narrative in good faith? Were the stories and controversies from last year vastly overblown in the first place?
I’d imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle, but each of these possibilities raises its own set of concerns. However you assess the likely factors, it must be asked whether the process of questioning, probing and playing devil’s advocate, which a healthy media should play, is sufficiently robust in Northern Ireland.