Becoming Counterpoint: The Slow Birth of a Successful Current Affairs Series
University of Ulster
(at time of presentation)
Ken Griffin is a freelance postdoctoral media researcher who specialises in regional television, media historiography and archival silences. He is currently working with the Ulster University on a project focused on preserving interstitial material, which is part-funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
Counterpoint (UTV, 1978-96) remains possibly the most influential current affairs TV series produced in Northern Ireland. The programme was unique in that its reach extended beyond geographical boundaries. In the 1980s, many episodes were screened in Britain while its 1994 exposé of paedophile priest Father Brendan Smith is often cited as having contributed to the collapse of the then Irish government of Albert Reynolds. This achievement is remarkable given how the series generally operated on a smaller budget than its BBC rival Spotlight (1975-Present).
This paper explores the basis of this success by examining the formative years of Counterpoint from its launch in January 1978 to the start of its national screenings in 1983. Although the series’ core aims remained consistent during this period, Counterpoint initially struggled to establish itself. This was due to restrictions imposed by UTV’s editorial policies and regular shifts in the series’ format and tone. This meant that Counterpoint was unable to maximise the impact of early exclusives such as the first film of the dirty blocks of the Maze Prison.
By 1982, Counterpoint appeared to be nearing cancellation after it abrupt remodelling as a studio debate programme and the departure of its entire production team. Instead, the crisis provoked a re-examination of the series and its function, leading to a reversion to its original 1978 format. This move, coupled with changes to UTV’s editorial policies, ultimately established a successful template which remained virtually unchanged for the remainder of the series’ run.