This article originally appeared in The i Paper.
“Where are the men?” was the somewhat tired and predictable response from the more unenlightened (male) social media users to the BBC announcement on Wednesday that Emily Maitlis is to lead a Newsnight presenter team of three women. Kirsty Wark, a veteran of the show for a quarter of a century is to take on what is called “an enhanced role”, with Five Live’s Emma Barnett joining the team as a new recruit.
I even got texts from friends of mine on the ‘liberal left’ along the lines of “If it were an all male line-up there would be uproar”. This rather misses the point that for years there was a predominantly male line-up of presenters on all political programmes, including Newsnight and few people commented, let alone complained. It was just so. Male BBC managers appointed people in their own reflection. The trouble is, female managers also appointed male presenters. In radio a myth has somehow grown up that women listeners don’t like to listen to female presenters and sadly this has also been evident in political TV programming. It’s bollocks of course, and I use that word advisedly, for in both TV radio, the possession of a pair of spherical objects has no influence on whether you’re good at your job or not.
Another text I received (from a particularly right on journalist) said: “This is actual proof of positive discrimination”. No, it wasn’t. I replied by asking: “Which one of Maitlis, Wark or Barnett” do you think has been promoted over an equally competent, or perhaps even more qualified male candidate? Answer came there none. These three journalists are at the top of their game and no one with any understanding of political journalism could argue otherwise. All three appointments are fully merited and the Newsnight production team should be very confident about how they will once more turn the programme into a “must-watch”, not just for political geeks like me, but for everyone with a passing interest in current affairs.
There is one big challenge for the Newsnight team, and it’s not a short term one. There was a time when most politicians would regard it as both an honour and a duty to appear on Newsnight and programmes like it, and Number 10 would generally put up a cabinet minister. Over the last decade or perhaps more, that mindset has changed both within government and opposition. Newsnight is not alone in encountering this attitude, it has to be said. Even this week the Government refused to put up a cabinet minister on the show, and Labour refused to put up a front-bencher for three days in a row, and this during one of the most incendiary weeks in British politics for years. However, it’s been quite noticeable in recent months that the quality of political guests has improved, and this is translating into much healthier audience figures. On some important news evenings the audience has topped 1 million recently, which given it generally inherits 200,000 is good going. The earlier finish to the BBC1 News at Ten will also have an effect.
The new Newsnight editor, Esme Wren – who joined the programme from Sky News in May last year – is very different from her predecessor in the role, Ian Katz, yet they both command huge loyalty from their team. Katz was flamboyant and was always looking to create headlines by any means necessary. Wren is more understated but has already made some significant changes to the show, making it tighter and less flabby. Katz was known for his gimmicks. Who can forget the sight of Kirsty Wark closing a show, dancing to Thriller. Under Wren, she also departed the show one evening when I was on a panel as a guest, by disappearing up into the studio roof holding an umbrella and dressed as Mary Poppins. In context, it worked. Trust me.
Emma Barnett made some impressive appearances as a cover presenter last summer and has proved herself as an excellent political interviewer, whether on Newsnight, Marr or her radio show. She’s created several memorable interview moments, including recently with both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
She’s also a producer’s dream in that, like me, she regards it as part of her job to “get” the interview as well as conduct it. She doesn’t take no for an answer and is completely shameless in battering down political doors until she gets what she wants. That’s what she will bring to Newsnight. Emily Maitlis’s promotion to lead presenter is no more than she deserves. Frankly, it should have happened a long time ago. She’s at the top of her game and has proved to be not only an impressive host, but also a story getter in the traditional sense of the phrase. Her original journalism on American politics over the last two years have been exemplary and brought a unique perspective to Newsnight.
In the end, all programmes are judged by their audience figures. Even with Jeremy Paxman at the helm, Newsnight’s was already falling. Can this new team turn it around? I rather think they might.
This week I have been… Reading…
It’s astonishing that it’s been 37 years since Chris Mullin published his political thriller ‘A Very British Coup’. Next week the sequel, ‘The Friends of Harry Perkins’ comes out. I’m half way through it at the moment and savouring every page. It’s set in a post Brexit Britain with a left wing politician climbing the greasy pole of Labour politics. As Theresa May might say, remind you of anyone?
Giles Fraser’s ‘Confessions’ podcast is getting rather addictive, and not just because I am his latest victim (download it on Monday!). I’ve gone through his entire back catalogue and enjoyed every one of his interviews with the likes of Mary Warnock, Melanie Phillips (who was a revelation!), Helena Kennedy & Claire Fox. He tempted me to reveal rather too much from my lurid past. If you hear me mention Bondi Beach, you may want to cover your ears…
‘Big in Japan’ was Alphaville’s biggest hit, back in 1984. I was living in Germany at the time and sent a ’45 single of it to Steve Wright on Radio 1. He played it and it became a hit in the UK too. I’ve loved Alphaville ever since. They’ve released a remastered version of their ‘Forever Young’ album which also contains around 20 remixes and unreleased tracks. Alphaville are still going strong and I’m going to see them in concert in Belfast in April.
I’ve just completed watching Salvation on Netflix. It’s all a bit Bruce Willis, with the lead character – coincidentally played by an actor called Ian Dale – trying to stop an asteroid hitting the Earth. In two series it features four different US Presidents, including one who supposedly dies but then comes back to reclaim her presidency. Sadly the series has now been canned, but if you like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland’ you’ll love it.