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30 November 2023

How to save Newsnight

The show must rediscover what made it so radical in the first place.

By John Tusa

Editor’s note: It was announced yesterday (29 November) that Newsnight is to be cut back and have its format overhauled. In this piece, originally published on 6 November, John Tusa reflects on his time on the show in the 1980s and discusses how it can rediscover what made it so radical in the first place.

Newsnight, BBC 2’s flagship current affairs programme, is rumoured to be facing the axe. Senior staff are leaving, audiences falling, and budgets are to be emasculated. The whole justification for its place in the schedules is now seriously in doubt. Newsnight has driven the British politerati for 43 years. Surely it can’t be cancelled so quickly?

Newsnight almost never got on the air at all. Its founding editor, George Carey, looked at the way the BBC reported the world to viewers and found it seriously flawed. The news division recognised and reported on “the facts”. Interpretation of the facts was seen as dangerous, unpredictable and left to the field of “current affairs”.

The depth of the divide that existed between these two journalistic “practices” is impossible to imagine today. The young Lorraine Heggessey, later to be controller of BBC One, described it as “the equivalent of the Berlin Wall”. Joan Bakewell, later Newsnight’s arts reporter, experienced the split as a “virulent antagonistic relationship” that was not serving the audience. I saw it as a tussle between the “Puritans of News” who believed in the primacy of “the fact” and the “Cavaliers of Current Affairs” for whom a fact was the basis for searching for understanding. Carey’s vision and ambition were to merge the two, intellectually, professionally, programmatically.

Carey had hired me as one of the main presenters on the basis of a chance viewing of an obscure daytime programme. I had never been a mainstream television journalist but he liked what he saw. That was how he worked. I searched for what made him special when I revisited the origins of Newsnight for my book about creative innovators, Bright Sparks.

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Carey knew that daring was needed among the journalists who would deliver this new vision. He began at the top by hiring Peter Snow, the charismatic ITN news presenter, for a large fee. His unconsulted BBC superiors blenched but did not overrule him. Carey then engaged veteran correspondents for whom the news division found no role or place. Almost incredibly, great journalists such as Charles Wheeler, David Sells, Vincent Hanna, David Lomax and others were extracted from a kind of newsroom “salon de refuses”. It was a gallery of experience and talent that was let loose and gave early Newsnight so much of its distinction.

These veterans were matched with a swathe of young, sometimes trainee, producers, such as Tim Gardam, Jana Bennett, Robert Harris, fondly known as the “tearaways”. Carey gave them licence, “the freedom not to stick to the rules”. If he was clear about what he wanted, he also wanted “to leave it to people to find their solutions”.

The mixture was brilliant, it was radical, it was innovative, and the atmosphere it created was heady. But Carey’s vision, with the exception of John Gau, head of current affairs, lacked internal BBC support. Bill Cotton, controller of BBC One, wouldn’t touch it. Brian Wenham, controller of BBC Two, clearly Newsnight’s natural home, played remote, detached and non-committal.

[See also: Why Question Time has had its time]

When the Association of Broadcasting Staffs (ABS) announced that the programme could not start until terms and conditions of the two different sets of BBC journalists were agreed, BBC managers caved in and delayed the programme start date of September 1979. None threw their weight behind Carey and his vision: not Bill Cotton, certainly not Brian Wenham. Worst of all perhaps was the indifference displayed by Alasdair Milne, the managing director of BBC television. When I spoke to Peter Snow about the early years of the programme, he dismissed his contacts with senior BBC management over the union deadlock as “majorly squidgy”. He had after all put a stellar career at ITN at risk.

Four months of near farce followed as the Newsnight team pretended to make pilot programmes in Television Centre basement conference rooms with no idea as to whether they might ever make them in reality. Incredibly, real people were engaged to take part in these fantasy programmes. Even Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, was approached. His response is branded in Snow’s memory: “If you think I’m going to do a fictitious interview for a fictitious programme with a fictitious person… go away, leave me alone.”

Only Gau recommended ignoring the ABS, a tame in-house union at best, and just going ahead without a formal agreement. “They wouldn’t have pulled the plugs,” he told me.

It was never quite clear what compromise was cobbled together to allow Newsnight to go on air five months late in February 1980. Even then, Wenham dragged his feet. “It might run for a year or two,” he told me when the programme was only months into its existence. Only the Falklands War and Newsnight’s sheer originality forced his hand.

What kept it going? Carey had two driving principles. The first was: “You’re not making the last show of the day. You are making the first programme of tomorrow.” The other was that Newsnight should never lead on the same story as the BBC’s then Nine o’ Clock News. That would be failure. Our leads were usually much closer to ITN’s. Newsnight prided itself on being massively corporately divergent. Lorraine Heggessey recalls one remark banned at morning editorial meetings: “There’s an interesting story in the Guardian.”

My own recollection of the overwhelming atmosphere of the early years was that the programme thrived on three essential ingredients: unpredictability, curiosity and wit. Joan Bakewell recalls it as: “We’re ploughing a new path here, we’re changing the nature of programming.” It was often chaotic in Tim Gardam’s fond memory but early Newsnight was seldom dull. And the programme that almost didn’t start has lasted for 43 years.

Where might it go from here? All the former Newsnight colleagues I consulted were realistic about the straitened budgetary situation. “It must rely on the drama of being live,” said one. “Find the one person to interview under whose skin a large chunk of the population would like to get that night!”

“Recreate it as a flagship programme for the merged news channel,” urged another. That would give it a role. Limping along on BBC Two as Newsnight currently does was not seen as any kind of answer.

Another warned against turning it into “just another talk show”. They added: “The whole point of the original concept was that it reported the world seamlessly. The presenters were journalists who were outside the studio on location alongside the correspondents. The programme’s signature was the collective signature of the cadre of reporters.” Could that be recreated?

Another focused on those two mainstay categories of journalists. The presenters: “Paxman – gone. Maitlis – gone. Wark – leaving!” And the correspondents: “Once it was Wheeler, Hanna, Sells. Then it was Mardell, Crick. They’re gone. Mark Urban is superb. Is that enough?”

My own questioning takes a slightly different form. Does the BBC corporately have the stomach for a fresh dose of Carey-like innovation? Would he be allowed to get away with it? Would any new editorial ideas not be buried under piles of policy, compliance, consultants and risk analysis? That way boredom and sterility lie.

I am less concerned about staffing a new version of Newsnight. Neglected, overlooked reporters surely still lurk; would-be young tearaway producers long for the call to arms – once again to make a programme of unpredictability, curiosity and wit. Who will make that call?

A final thought. I asked former Newsnight colleagues how we would have fared under today’s editorial nostrums. Could we have done what we did as we did? They all doubted it.

[See also: Can anyone save the BBC from itself?]

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