Stephen Nolan recently tweeted that interest in attending his TV show demonstrated the public appetite for “debate”. Therein lies the problem. Nolan does not do debate, or even conversation. And what he does do is actually quite damaging.
What shock jocks do and, in Northern Ireland at least, that is what Stephen Nolan is, is slanging matches. Those are quite different from debates. Slanging matches consist of opposing sides simply stating their view, often quite loudly and occasionally rudely, without even beginning to listen to the opposing viewpoint. Debates, at least if they are to be meaningful, are quite different from that.
The purpose of a debate, in fact, is to reach a meaningful conclusion – quite often one which, by definition, will be a compromise. For this to happen, in practice, there at least has to be agreement on the basics of the issue.
For example, if someone fundamentally believe that a living being exists from conception and someone else takes the view that life does not occur until birth, they cannot have a meaningful debate on abortion; that can only happen if both participants at least take the basic position that life occurs somewhere between conception and birth (in which case a meaningful debate, potentially with an agreed outcome, can take place on the circumstances and timing under which an abortion should be allowed to occur).
What Nolan does, deliberately, is pick the extremes. As a result, no actual debate can take place. This is why it in fact becomes necessary, for example, for parties involved in negotiations to ignore his show. If the founding basis of his show is not even agreed (or is even just plain wrong, as per his recent radio show on roadworks), then absolutely nothing constructive can arise from the slanging match which inevitably results.
I suspect the Northern Irish public are interested in debate, but for that to happen it needs a mix of genuinely representative and expert opinion (and probably more than two sides – there is no reason to believe an outcome has to be constructed solely on binary viewpoints) to produce the basis at least for a conversation which may deliver a meaningful outcome.
Since the BBC is supposed to be about educating and informing (leaving others to chase ratings), maybe it is time for a fundamental rethink of how it does such programmes.