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It’s fair to say that if any BBC programme deserves the title ‘flagship’, it’s Newsnight.
It feels like it’s always been there and has always been excellent. So, it’s no surprise that the BBC’s announcement of deep cuts and a radical restructuring that will change the scope and very nature of the programme has been greeted with dismay by many people who have worked on it, and many more who appreciate its storytelling and extremely high journalistic standards.
A highlight of recent years was Emily Maitlis’ interview with Prince Andrew, with the former Newsnight presenter taking to X (formerly Twitter) to lament the decision to reduce the editorial team by more than half and turn the programme into a talk show.
“Could the Prince Andrew interview have happened in this iteration of BBC Newsnight?” she asked. “Of course not. Aside from the painstaking prep and lengthy research that demanded from the team, [Prince Andrew] came to a flagship brand the BBC was proud of. It doesn’t feel that way tonight.
“Of course, there will still be interviews and debates and the theme music will carry on. But once the bosses send out a signal they don’t really *care* about a flagship investigative news programme – the guests and the audience start to wonder why they should.”
The decision to eviscerate Newsnight has to be seen in the context of the relentless campaign against the very idea of public service broadcasting that has been waged by the Conservatives from the minute they came to office in 2010.
The biggest weapon has been funding and the BBC has been strangled by round after round of inadequate licence fee rises or freezes in an age of broadcast inflation.
This has been accompanied by viscous and constant political pressure. Faced with a Government that hates the BBC, wants it dead, and until it is dead wants it to be compliant, the corporation’s leaders have chosen a policy of appeasement.
The disasters of Brexit and the institutional dishonesty and incompetence of the Conservative Governments went unchallenged by most of the BBC’s output – because its leaders were scared stiff of those governments.
Furthermore, increasingly and importantly, many of them – such as Sir Robbie Gibb, Richard Sharp, and Tim Davie – were Conservatives themselves.
Newsnight was one of the few programmes to buck this trend and actually try to hold the Government to account and call out lies.
Maitlis did so with Dominic Cummings over his Barnard Castle ‘eye test’; and Lewis Goodall, the programme’s policy editor, did some excellent analysis. Both left the programme, with many people seeing the grey influence of Gibb behind that outcome.
I think Newsnight’s fearlessness and willingness to call out lies created some powerful enemies in the BBC’s hierarchy – and they have finally succeeded in effectively killing it.
The programme is to be shortened and is to become solely a format for live discussion. It will lose its team of dedicated reporters and the producers who work with them on the films that have always been such a vital part of the programme.
Meirion Jones, a former Newsnight journalist who was instrumental in breaking the Jimmy Savile abuse story – the row over which led to his departure from the BBC – believes what he calls “the sausage factory” of neutered and homogenised BBC output has won.
“Everything coming out of the BBC will be one amorphous blob,” he told me. “We need programmes like Newsnight which have a little independence and a shorter editorial chain. We need expert reporters and producers who can take advantage of that freedom to make interesting, revelatory, surprising TV and really hold power to account whether that’s exposing a multinational or putting a prince on the spot. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last thing BBC bosses want.”
Filmed reports – or packages to use the jargon – are a foundational part of Newsnight’s journalism. News reports in the BBC’s TV news bulletins would normally be under two minutes long, stretching to perhaps five minutes for a lead on the 10 o’clock news. Newsnight’s films might be 10 minutes long or even more. The programme’s pool of dedicated reporters – who all really know what they are doing – are complimented by talented and creative producers and video journalists who make engaging and informative television.
But more importantly, these packages get at the truth. They are examinations of complex issues by impartial, intelligent and well-informed journalists – not just a formulaic bad-tempered run through polarised arguments. In other words: they inform, educate and entertain Newsnight’s audience. It’s no wonder the BBC’s timid and servile leadership has decided to get rid of them.
What we will get instead is more of the same old ‘he says this, but she says that’ discourse that has done so much damage, not only to the BBC’s reputation, but also to Britain’s democracy.
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Instead of any attempt to get at the truth, we will have more Tufton Street think tankers spouting the views of their shadowy financial sponsors ‘balanced’ with honest people who know what they are talking about.
It is just the latest – and perhaps terminal – stage of the BBC’s adoption of a philosophy based on the idea that ‘the truth must lie somewhere in between’ two opposing views. This philosophy is quick, easy and, above all else, cheap to implement. It also avoids the need to take any courageous editorial decisions (a big plus for BBC managers), because all it needs is guests to represent ‘both sides of the argument’.
Stand by for flat-earthers up against professors of astrophysics, or influencers arguing with immunologists about virus spread, or newspaper columnists telling peer-reviewed research scientists there’s no such thing as climate change.
However robust and challenging these discussions might be, there will be no well-made, intelligent films crafted by impartial producers, video journalists and reporters to actually examine the issues and get to the truth.
There will just be noise, clipped up and shared on social media, where it will wash around for months, reinforcing increasingly polarised positions and allowing people with delusional and sometimes sinister views to feel validated.
The whole philosophy of this false balance, of ‘hearing both sides of the argument’, is built on sand. Sometimes there aren’t two sides – sometimes there’s just honest, well-informed people who are expected to argue their case against dishonest scoundrels who lie for a living. The truth does not lie ‘somewhere in between’ these two positions: the truth is not the midpoint between facts and lies.
So, the Newsnight decision makes perfect sense – if you want to save money, you want to keep the Government sweet, and you don’t care much about the BBC’s reputation for telling its audiences the truth. Viewed from every other angle, it can only be seen as a craven capitulation and an admission of defeat.