At one stage during the filming of View From Stormont at South West College, presenter Paul Clark sat talking off camera with one of the politicians featured on the programme. He seemed to sympathise with them, saying he was sat in the easier chair: ‘it’s dead easy for me to sit here and ask the questions.’ But even in today’s world where social media can provide a direct link between politicians and voters, and the place of the media is constantly brought into question, programmes such as View From Stormont still provide the prism through which we view much of the political world. Way out West caught up with UTV’s political editor Ken Reid to hear how his career began and how he views his role in politics.
Ken Reid is the Political Editor at UTV, and after several decades covering politics across Ireland, there are few people more experienced on the subject.
Looking back to the early days of his career, he explains, ‘I worked in newspapers for seventeen years. I was editor of the old Belfast Sunday News, as well as working for the Newsletter and the Cork Examiner.
‘During my time in Cork I started doing a fair bit of punditry for sky, and UTV came to me and enquired if I’d be interested in joining, originally as a producer. Believe it or not this was a month before the 1994 ceasefire, and I had loads of contacts having worked in the south, which would prove useful. I just decided to go for it. The change was massive, it felt like changing career and I loved it.’
The knowledge and understanding of Northern Ireland politics picked up in this time is what makes Ken so qualified for his current role.
‘I’ve a fair amount of experience at this stage, and my job now is more to analyse what’s happening than actually report it. You could say I know most of the politicians pretty well, and my role is to point out what’s likely to happen, and the strengths and weakness of arguments and political parties.’
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However, despite everything he’s seen in this time, he insists that personal opinions can’t be allowed to seep into his professional work.
‘The difference between here and America is that in America the broadcast media can be biased. You have the likes of Fox News, and they’re allowed to be biased. Here you can’t. Organisations like OFCOM ensure we have to be fair and balanced at all times.
‘But I’ve found as a journalist that the way you gain respect is by being fair and balanced anyway. I mean I would certainly hope that nobody could know my own politics. I think that’s crucial.’
Opinions are of course prevalent when it comes to politics, and in recent times commentary and personal interpretation seem to have dominated news programmes almost as much as the bare facts. Likewise, social media platforms can allow the personalities and opinions of news presenters, pundits and interviewers to be more public than in the past.
Yet it’s a similarly experienced broadcaster that continues to impress Ken Reid the most. Andrew Neil recently held a series of pre-election interviews with party leaders on BBC, and Ken says, ‘Andrew Neil’s interviews have impressed me, I think he’s the best political journalist we have at the moment.
‘He’s been about, he’s nearly seventy years old, and he’s experienced as a newspaper man with the Sunday times. He’s managed to demolish politicians in interviews, but that’s different, an interviewer is different to a political correspondent or a political editor. As correspondents and editors we’re there to report, whereas interviewers are there to dissect the politician. They’re very different roles.’
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Other interviewers have been questioned over their style. Reid acknowledges that Jeremy Paxman’s interviews are ‘very set-piece’ but believes that this is part of a wider trend.
‘I think it’s part of the current trend in the media that interviews are almost aggressive. But if the politician is telling a lie, the public deserve to know.’
Although a fair technique, and one that often works to good effect, this isn’t an approach all members of the political media could afford to use.
‘I think we’re blessed to have specialised people like Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman who are doing that. But they don’t have to deal with the politicians day to day, and that makes a difference. Sometimes you have to risk your relationship with a politician if the story requires it, because you have to always follow the story, but a lot of the time, in Northern Ireland in particular, where our politics is so fragile, you have to tread lightly.’