This is the fifth of a new weekly column I am writing for Reaction.Life
Back in the day it was clear what Newsnight’s role was. Put simply it was there to cover the day’s news stories in more depth than is possible on a news bulletin, to explain more complicated stories, to do original journalism and to go where other news programmes hadn’t, or couldn’t.
It had a stupendous budget and top rank, high profile presenters, none of whose politics it was possible to discern from what they said on screen. Each night it would have big high-profile guests in the studio from Britain and around the world.
The programme has gone through several crises and reincarnations in its existence, not least the Jimmy Savile episode and the subsequent departure of Jeremy Paxman, who had been its lodestar for fifteen years. Ian Katz, who had previously been the deputy editor of The Guardian, was brought in to revive a show whose demise was being predicted by media watchers. He certainly spiced it up a bit, not just with gimmicks like Kirsty Wark dancing to “Thriller”, but also in content.
But he changed things so much that the audience at times were left scratching their heads and wondering what Newsnight was becoming. Budget cuts continued to affect what was achievable and it got to a point where the show was mainly based on booking studio panels rather than ground-breaking original journalism.
That’s fine (sort of) when you have huge daily breaking news stories as there have been in the last two years, mainly surrounding the Brexit saga. It’s less fine when there’s not much going on and the viewing audience hankers after something in depth from a far-flung part of the world.
Having said that, under Esme Wren’s editorship the Newsnight audience has revived over the last year. Some nights it has hit more than a million viewers, and regularly outperforms Peston on a Wednesday night.
Tuesday’s Newsnight will go down in media history for all sorts of reasons. The show’s lead presenter, Emily Maitlis, delivered an opening monologue which had Boris Johnson’s enemies cheering her from the rafters and his defenders reaching for the off button. It wasn’t the first time. The next day the BBC threw her and the programme under a bus, declaring that the show lacked the due impartiality which it had a duty to provide. Maitlis decided she couldn’t then present Wednesday’s show, understandably feeling she would be a distraction.
Quite why the BBC had to wash its dirty washing in public, I do not know, but it was pretty unedifying, and totally undermining for the show’s staff. It is unclear who made the decision to publicly admonish the programme. Three names probably feature on the Newsnight dartboard – Head of News, Fran Unsworth, Head of Westminster political operations Katy Searle and the BBC’s editorial director, Kamal Ahmed.
Perhaps they had been spooked by the appalling #scummedia hashtag which has got traction this week. Whatever the reason, it led to understandable accusations that the BBC were being leaned on by the government. No government minister has appeared on Newsnight since March and it is clear that the frustration is showing. Each night, Maitlis utters the words: “We invited a government minister onto the programme, but no one was available.” On Tuesday she took this a step further and said: “You know the words, you can all join in at home.” I found that quite amusing but clearly BBC head honchos did not.
It is obvious that Emily Maitlis’s monologue did not meet the BBC’s own standards of impartiality. But then again you could say the same of some of Andrew Neil’s choicer monologues. I understand the desire of some BBC presenters to be a bit more “out there”. They know that we live in an age of controversy, where colour attracts eyeballs, and greyness does not.
The trouble is, the BBC is not Fox News or CNN and should not want to be. If I want to watch an opinionated presenter, I can get that elsewhere. Christiane Amanpour on CNN is a great example of someone who wears her opinions on her sleeve. I suppose I do on the radio too. But we’re paid to have opinions. BBC presenters are not. The very opposite is the case.
Newsnight has always been a personification of the BBC’s natural liberal sympathies. Look at who they have hired as Economics correspondents over the years – Paul Mason, Duncan Weldon and Ben Chu. I rest my case. I’ll believe things have changed when Kate Andrews or Liam Halligan get the gig. Ian Katz hired James O’Brien as a stand in presenter for twenty or so programmes. Someone on the right would never get a look-in. They did have Nick Ferrari presenting a couple of August shows as a fig-leaf but that was all it was.
Lewis Goodall, Newsnight’s newly appointed Policy Editor, is an outstanding political journalist and a great story-getter. He started his career as a Newsnight researcher. He then went to Sky News as a reporter and made a real reputation for himself, and was then poached back by Newsnight. He cops a lot of unfair flak, and some of it verges on bullying, just because he was a Labour activist at university. He’s not alone in that. Just because you were actively politically in your youth does not mean you cannot do your journalism in a fair way. His work on the Dominic Cummings affair has been outstanding. Yes, sometimes his twitter feed encourages my eyebrows to rise but he never fails to inform or engage.
Iain Watson, a BBC political reporter who worked for Tony Blair in the Millbank years, is a good example of someone who has made the transition from party activism to reporting. I suspect most of you reading this would be totally unaware of the fact he worked for Blair, which demonstrates how successful he is as a reporter.
However, I just cannot imagine a right of centre equivalent of Lewis or Iain would be tolerated either on Newsnight or within the Corporation more generally.
The BBC is not alone in suffering from this in-built seeming liberal bias. It’s the same in most newsrooms across the country. There needs to be more plurality rather than just recruitment from the same gene-pool.
But before we run away with the thought that there is a party political bias, there isn’t. The Corbynites hated Newsnight. The show had just as much difficulty getting any Corbyn shadow cabinet member to appear, unless their name included the words Gardiner and Barry.
Newsnight is a show that can have personality without it making part of its audience switch off. You can make great current affairs programmes which both David Lammy and Peter Bone can appreciate. OK, I exaggerate to make a point, but not all political coverage needs to be polarising.
I have huge regard for Emily Maitlis. I like her presenting style. I like the cheeky glint that’s ever-present in her eye. She can be a fantastic interviewer and is an engaging personality. She totally deserves to be the Newsnight lead presenter, with all the responsibilities that come with that role, including staying on the tightrope of impartiality. I hope this little squall doesn’t change that.