One of the politicians I worked for said that a distinct advantage of being in the Cabinet was never again having to appear live on Newsnight. A junior minister could be dispatched to Broadcasting House for ritual disembowelment by Paxman or Wark, and the Cabinet Minister could be safely home with their red boxes. That the powerful fear Newsnight is a mark of its success and value to our political discourse.
I’ve been appearing on it, off and on, since the mid-1990s. I once persuaded them to cover a Labour Party plant sale in Billericay at the height of New Labour. I’ve faced Michael Crick on College Green, and Jeremy Paxman in the studio, struggling to get a word in edgeways alongside Danny Finklestein. Most recently I debated some chap who felt he was fully entitled to stand as a Labour candidate, whose tone and demeanour rather proved the opposite.
However, I have always been treated fairly and never once been asked to resign. Proper politicians fear Newsnight but know it is informed, erudite, querulous, and challenging. Sam McAlister’s excellent Scoops describes the behind-the-scenes machinations to get powerful bums onto the hot seat, and how they can so often crash and burn. Just ask the Duke of York.
Yet the rich and powerful appear because they know it remains a vital part of our politics – a place where reputations are made and broken. And when Newsnight is attacked by all sides – by Corbynites claiming Newsnight made their idol’s hat look ‘more Russian’ or the Tories complaining the left-wing tilt of the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’, then you know they are doing something right.
All of which makes BBC management’s decision to sack the investigation team and reduce Newsnight to a late-night talk show all the more bewildering. In effect, they are abolishing Newsnight as a serious news programme, just when we need serious news more than ever.
We are living in an age of Fake News, where any old nonsense is adopted, repeated, and amplified across social – or antisocial – media. The hideous rise of antisemitism online is a symptom of a wider malaise. As so often, the Jews are the canary in the coalmine, as democratic norms and scientific facts are squished by a mountain of conspiratorial hate.
It’s only going to get worse. I caught a cab in Liverpool in October during conference. The driver was indignant that the Labour leader had been caught on camera slagging off the great city of Liverpool. He’d seen the video on TikTok, and believed it. The video, of course, was a deep fake. Imagine a senior politician going all the way to a major northern city just to insult them, unless it’s Sunak in Manchester scrapping HS2.
Deep fakes will now feature as part of our politics, and become ever-harder to distinguish from the real thing. People will believe the ‘evidence’ of their own eyes and ears, especially if the fake news feeds their own biases. And there are plenty of people in Russia, Iran, and China whose full-time occupation is to plant seeds of nonsensical conspiracy into democratic systems and skew elections. The BBC should be a bulwark against these hostile state actors who want to fill up your phone, scramble your head, and steal your vote.
If the BBC wants to win public trust and secure its charter, then it should show it holds to its Reithian principles and the best traditions of reporting, investigation and interrogation. If it wants a race for ratings, it will lose. GB News will always manage to produce faster, funnier, more provocative panel discussions with slightly bonkers guests. More people will watch The Last Leg for a feisty take on the day’s events.
Late night discussions with the commentariat talking over each other is not what Newsnight is for. Newsnight is for the serious business of exposing folly and hypocrisy, holding politicians to account, and investigating and exposing injustice. We need to look up briefly from X and be informed, educated, and entertained. If the BBC vacates the space, it will swiftly fill with antivaxxers, antisemites, and people who believe that Rachel Reeves is a giant lizard, or whatever.
Surely faced with this ever-more blurred line between what is real and what is fake, the BBC should be making Newsnight longer, and employing more trained NUJ members, not fewer. The BBC bean-counters say their disastrous plan is about saving money. But they should be more concerned with saving our democracy.
If you enjoyed this piece, see Paul Richard’s previous blog Breakthrough By-elections: The big picture of Labour’s modernisation.