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, presenters like Paul still provide the prism through which we view much of the political world. Way out West caught up with him to hear how his career began and how he views his role in politics.
‘I have to tell you the truth,’ Paul Clark says as he sits down. ‘I didn’t work as hard in school as I should have. My A Level results were woeful, I didn’t even make clearing to go to Queen’s University. I had no idea what I was going to do next.
‘But I was interested in the media, and wanted to get into radio, and I felt that the only way I was going to be able to do that was through newspaper journalism. I don’t mind admitting that I bluffed my way onto a journalism course in Belfast, and forty-three years later I’m still bluffing my way.’
A long way from failing his A Levels, In June 2015, Paul Clark was awarded an honorary degree by Ulster University for services to broadcasting and his charity work with UNICEF. He remains humble about how he got here – ‘I was lucky, I landed on my feet,’ he says – but there’s no doubt about the passion he has for his work.
‘Politics is the only show in town. This is a democracy and I’m wedded to the fact that politics is the only way we are ever going to be able to resolve our differences and make a better future. That’s the way it’s always been.’
Paul began working in journalism at the Irish News, before moving to radio where he eventually fulfilled his dream of being a DJ while working for 2FM in Dublin. He says, ‘I managed to get [being a DJ] out of the way, out of my system, before settling down and concentrating on what I was trained to do which is to be a journalist.’
Paul’s passion for presenting and reporting politics stems from his passion for politics in general.
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‘Politics has always been an interest of mine from the very beginning, so much so that as soon as I got the vote at eighteen I took it and I have never missed an election since. During the time I was working in Dublin my residence was still here, and I felt so strongly about voting that I came up to Lisburn, where I then lived, to cast my vote.’
Paul doesn’t shy away from his feeling that a similar dedication to democracy could be stronger felt across the country.
‘A hundred years ago women couldn’t vote on this island, and now they can, and I’m passionate about the need to vote – so passionate in fact that I would make it compulsory. I really believe that. We all have a part to play and we can’t abdicate our responsibility by staying away and saying “Oh, I couldn’t vote for any of them,” because actually you can.
‘One of my sons, David, is disabled. He’s 26 and he has Down syndrome. Once upon a time people with a learning disability couldn’t vote, but he can. He’s been able to vote since he was eighteen, and he comes along with me every election to cast his vote. Sometimes people disregard their right to vote, and they disregard it at their own peril.’
Paul was at South West College in Omagh for an edition of View From Stormont which saw college students posing questions to party politicians.
‘I was very impressed with the student engagement today. I think in the past it’s been seen that people who are very interested in politics are of another generation, but I don’t get that anymore. Certainly people who are older have an interest in politics, but I’m so glad to see that the baton is being passed to the next generation, because there’ll come a time when my generation won’t be here, and we’ve got to leave the body politic in good hands. These people are voting for their future, just like once upon a time I was where they are, voting for my future.’
It’s these views on politics in general that drive Paul’s opinions on his role in the media, both in reporting the news and conducting interviews.
‘Our responsibility is to tell it as it is and as we see it. We live in an increasingly open society, so it’s important that journalists try to light up the dark corners. There have been a lot of dark corners in the past and we still don’t know where they all are. And so we’re always trying to inform people. That’s the important thing, because people have a right to know.’
How journalists and the media go about doing this successfully has been something of a talking point in recent weeks. Jeremy Paxman received criticism from some areas for his performance in interviews with Jeremy Corbyn and Teresa May recently, but although he admits that different interviewers have their own style, Paul believes that the overall goals remain the same.
‘Jeremy Paxman is Jeremy Paxman. There’s no point in me trying to be a Jeremy Paxman or trying to mimic him, because that isn’t my style. But I must be doing something right or I wouldn’t be doing the job I am. My job approach is a little more softly softly, but equally I’ve got to make the politicians stand their ground.’
An example of this came when he interviewed Sinn Fein leader, Michelle O’Neill, as part of the View From Stormont’s one on one interviews with the party leaders in Northern Ireland.
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‘I was obviously holding Michelle O’Neill to account, but I was also saying to her, as I say to all the politicians, I respect your mandate. And I was saying that to her off camera, before we began the interview, because it’s important they know I’m not on some personal crusade. I’m having to ask questions that she may not want to answer, but it will be the same next week when I’m interviewing Arlene Foster or anybody else.
‘I feel we always have to be careful in our job that we’re not more important or we don’t appear to be more important than the person we’re interviewing. I like to think that I know my place, so if I’m interviewing Michelle O’Neill as I was today, Michelle O’Neill is more important than me. Yes I have to put the questions to her, but I also have to allow her to speak. And it’s the same with the politicians that were here to talk to the students, you know you’ve got to let them speak and let them have their say.’