The BBC no longer knows what it wants to be

A culture of unreason prevails at the corporation.

BBC Broadcasting House
BBC Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images

Amid the media feeding frenzy over Newsnight, the biggest questions have been ignored. First, the state of current affairs. Newsnight and Panorama are in decline and the sad truth is that few care what either programme says about anything. The Panorama broadcast on 22 October as well as that evening’s Newsnight showed why. Second, this matters because, in the debate over the future of the BBC, one side is saying its future is about news and current affairs (NCA), while others argue that NCA is part of the problem, not the solution. And, finally, we should all be concerned by the growing atmosphere of hysteria and irrationalism in our culture, demonstrated by MPs, the makers of the ITV and Panorama programmes about Jimmy Savile and by very senior figures at the BBC.

The issue of Newsnight is straightforward. It has been in decline for some years. Its audience is in free fall. In 2008, Peter Barron, then its editor, wrote: “Throughout its history the Newsnight audience figures have oscillated between 800,000 and 1.2 million – at the moment we’re bang in the middle of that on one million.” By 2010, it had reached 800,000 viewers. In 2011, it was 665,000 and falling. That’s one-third of its audience gone in three years. Then there is the Paxman problem. In the first seven months of 2011, an average of 765,000 viewers watched Newsnight when it was presented by Jeremy Paxman, compared to 600,000 when Gavin Esler presented it, or 570,000 when it was Kirsty Wark (though she is usually up against Question Time on Thursday night on BBC1).

Worse still, the programme under Peter Rippon has become dull. Michael Crick left for Channel 4 News. His replacement as political editor, Allegra Stratton, formerly of the Guardian, was a poor appointment. The mess she made of Andrew Mitchell’s resignation was typical. Budget cuts have led to fewer film reports and as only Paxman can be relied on to manage an important studio interview or discussion, it leaves Newsnight exposed. Rippon has “stepped aside” but his position had already been called into question. On his watch, the programme was losing ratings and respect, and yet no one at the BBC did anything.

Executives have ignored the problem and have not begun to address the long-term problems facing both Newsnight and Panorama. Rolling news channels and media websites – including the BBC’s – have destroyed the need for the old flagship programmes unless they are fast on their feet.

Only news junkies will stay up for Newsnight once they have heard the main stories of the day on the Today programme or watched the Ten O’Clock News. What can it add? Recently, under Rippon, very little.

Newsnight and Panorama reflect deeper difficulties at the BBC: falling budgets and declining audience share, on both BBC1 and BBC2. Panorama has responded by dumbing down. Rippon might have put ratings first and gone for the “Jimmy Savile was a paedophile” splash. He didn’t and it looks as if he didn’t for journalistic reasons.

The Panorama investigation into Newsnight’s shelving of the programme on Savile was symptomatic of the problem. It was all heat and very little light. The producers had the heartrending testimony of several men and women who had been abused as children. However, despite much innuendo, they couldn’t find anyone else, at the BBC, at the Crown Prosecution Service, in Surrey Police, or in any of the named institutions, who could confirm anything. As for the allegation that Rippon had dropped the story because of pressure from above, they found no evidence to back this up.

Why does the scandal about Newsnight and Savile matter so much within the BBC? Programme-makers naturally hate to see a story dropped and since the reign of John Birt as director general there has been civil war between programme-makers and executives. There is something else, however, that touches on the very future of the corporation. This is the role of the news and current affairs department in the BBC. For years, controllers of BBC2 tried to get rid of Newsnight. News and current affairs resisted change and, more than 30 years later, Newsnight is still there.

This is part of a bigger battle over the future of the BBC. Some say that, as audience share plummets, sports rights disappear and the BBC can no longer bid for US hit shows, its only future will be as a kind of glorified Radio 4: news and current affairs programmes and a global brand, with a few bits and pieces in between. No more sport, prestige drama or serious history programmes.

Others say that Newsnight and Panorama are the problem, not the solution – they are boring, fewer viewers want to watch them and they are peripheral to the future of the BBC. The way forward is still big drama, big entertainment, to fight the battle for sports rights and Saturday evenings and keep looking for new talent and new formats; put the archive online, find new sports, and make more programmes about dinosaurs and natural history with computer generated imagery. That’s the future.

Compared to this, the apparent lack of grasp of detail or curiosity on the part of the recently appointed director general, George Entwistle, may seem small beer. But here we come to the biggest question of all: why this matters to our culture as a whole. Entwistle is a thoughtful man, and, appearing before the culture select committee on 23 October, he kept his focus on reason, proper procedure and key distinctions. Unlike the MPs on the committee, he insisted on the distinction between allegations and allegations that have been substantiated.

That is at the heart of all the uproar. MPs, journalists, programme-makers and lawyers have rushed to judgement. We have become impatient, even intolerant of due process. Whenever Entwistle suggested he might want to wait for confirmation from two independent inquiries he has set up, the MPs scoffed. When he said one inquiry might take four to six weeks, they were incredulous.

This is a sign of a larger wave of irrationalism. Delay is intolerable. Hindsight is king. Who needs painstaking evidence and patient inquiries? The question is: which will do more to help the countless victims of child abuse in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Britain –which, as we increasingly realise, was a different country, with different values, at a time when terrible things were done to vulnerable children?

David Herman is a former BBC television producer.