Monday, 12 November 2012

And it's goodnight from them…

Poor old Newsnight. They got hammered by everyone for not broadcasting a true story about Jimmy Savile. Then they got hammered for broadcasting an untrue story about Lord McAlpine.

Or rather, the Conservative Party and their Murdoch allies (the newspapers that didn't get the Savile story despite hacking every celebrity mobile in London) are trying to get Newsnight shut down when in fact it didn't name McAlpine. If anyone's guilty, it's the Heddlu Gogledd Cymru/North Wales Police, who apparently told Steve Messham that the man in the photo was Lord McAlpine when in fact it wasn't.

However, Newsnight is in deep trouble, and rightly so. I've crossed swords with it recently too: they interviewed an MP who'd written 'a report' on climate science, allowing him to rant and rave without ever mentioning that he's a director of an oil exploration company. There's been no reply to my formal complaint and I don't expect one now, given everything else that's gone on. But it is symptomatic of an editorial team which has lost sight of basic journalistic safeguards. They should have checked on the MP. They should have got a comment from McAlpine. They should have shown Messham a photo. They should have run the Savile film without regard for what the rest of the BBC is doing.

The show has been in trouble for ages. The leading presenters are trapped in a failed paradigm: talking heads and sarcasm may have worked once, but the politicians, PR spinners and assorted other publicity-hounds are well-versed in this kind of thing. Quizzical looks and sharp one-liners are no substitute for sustained, critical journalism. Paxman has long since stopped being the attack dog of the Third Estate and become a fully paid-up member of the establishment. The editorial side has been looking desperate for a while too: as an example watching the hugely impressive Paul Mason (perhaps the best journalist on TV at the moment) being forced (by his editor, he told me) to use teen hacker-speak to sex up a piece was nauseating. Then there's Allegra Stratton's monstrous and dishonest presentation of a hard-working teenage mother as some kind of parasite.

This is a programme that's lost its way: it doesn't know what's news, what's comment, and what's serious. It also, I suspect, doesn't know what its audience is or where a new generation will come from. It knows that the Westminster bubble is a turn-off but can't wean itself off the access and familiar formats. Mason is doing superb work with the Global South and the struggles of the bottom dogs, but the rest of the show is addicted to shots of Downing Street, head-to-head shouting matches and painful attempts at occasional levity.

However, we need Newsnight. Without it, BBC news becomes Huw Edwards putting on his furrowed brown for earthquakes and his grovelling face whenever a politician hoves into view. Sofa news, feel-good fluff and no more investigative journalism than you'd find on BBC3's celeb-driven drivel. It's news as wallpaper, as safety, as tame pussycat. The BBC is constantly under suspicion as the 'state' broadcaster, and it's true that plenty of its output may as well be government-approved: check out its use of 'efficiencies' when it means cuts and job losses - vocabulary from Tory HQ. But check out also the Daily Mail and the Sun, the BBC's biggest enemies. Did they get Savile? Did the Sun report the hacking story, or Leveson? Did the Mail  cover its editor's appearance at Leveson? Only briefly and in the most fawning terms. The Hillsborough cover-up wasn't revealed by the tabloids: the Sun participated in the demonisation of Liverpool fans.

The primary responsibility of the media is to enable the people to hold power to account. Newsnight has failed to do that, but nowhere near as completely as the popular press. This is why we need to defend Newsnight now. Look at the people circling round it: Tory MPs and the rightwing press. They hate the BBC and they hate being held to account. What they want is a cosy, neutered BBC which welcomes the powerful onto the sofa and asks them if they have anything they'd like to share with the nation. Yes, Newsnight and the BBC need a clear-out, and a cold hard re-appraisal of its standards and practices. But we'd be a poorer, weaker nation without a bold, independent hard news programme. Call it Newsnight or anything you like, but without it we're left with ducks on skateboards and Tory MPs demonising the poor/young/foreign without question, while Fox and Co fill the airwaves with poison.

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