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Shooting the deputy

Newsnight, reviewed.


I’m not sure we’ve had quite enough BBC stories on the BBC this past week, are you? Yes, they’ve told us about all the acting editors, the stand-ins who may or may not succeed their superiors when all this is over. But what about the deputy’s deputies? And the deputy’s deputy’s deputies? And so on. Is there something they’re not telling us? We need to know and I think we’d all appreciate it if Jeremy Vine could do one of his zingy graphics on Newsnight (weeknights, 10.30pm) sometime soon, detailing the entire chain of command from top to bottom. Silhouettes of the editors in question could be amber for those who are “acting”, green for those who are “in post”, and red for those who’ve “stepped aside” (a few intensive days of listening and I’m as fluent in managementspeak, or not, as Tim Davie himself). It would all be rather enlightening, the BBC newsroom cast as a marginal seat and BBC drama as a safe one. Unless, that is, drama has its own storm brewing. Please God no one ever mooted the idea of a quirky BBC4 Jimmy Savile biopic.

But let’s step back a little. As I write, the BBC’s self-flagellation has been going on for five days. In the beginning, it wasn’t pleasant to watch or to listen to. John Humphries’s interview with George Entwistle on the Today programme, in particular, was utterly gruesome, the presenter’s priggishness and bullying even more than usually repulsive (confession: I’ve more or less given up listening to Today, so shouty and strangely lacking in females is it; I caught Entwistle’s drubbing by accident). The whole encounter took me right back to the morning, some time in 1984, when my brother and I awoke to find that our gerbil, the aptly named Jelly Belly, had eaten her own young – an image that, alas, is now in the front of my mind whenever I switch on the television or radio.

The Newsnight apology programme, meanwhile, was beyond satire: no one from BBC management was willing to appear; the link to some obscure Tory MP breaking down and Esther Rantzen droning on about “responsible adults” while Steve Hewlett, media pundit, did his best impression of a Clanger just to her left. Eddie Mair, a peerless presenter who should be Newsnight’s anchor in the new dawn, looked, as my granny would have put it, decidedly liverish, as if he might be about to puke all over Rantzen’s patent heels. Poor Eddie. What a gig was that!

Now, though, it’s just getting boring. I understand that to keep its many enemies quiet, the BBC must be seen to be interrogating itself, punishing itself, hating itself, even if this means expending most of its energy on talk rather than action, on media management rather than on deep thinking. For viewers and listeners, though, it’s extremely tedious. The words “Helen” and “Boaden” have a sort of Pavlovan effect on me, just lately: they give me an itch for which the only effective emollient is the nearest off switch. Meanwhile, Israel bombs Syria, and Gaza bombs Israel and the Chinese regime changes at last, and these things are apparently considered less important and less interesting than one mistake – admittedly a pretty monstrous mistake – on one relatively littlewatched programme on one channel.

I settled down to watch Monday’s Newsnight wondering who, if anyone, the BBC would field. And, what do you know, it was my old friend, Alan Yentob! The corporation’s creative director looked extremely sage in his tortoise I settled down to watch Monday’s Newsnight wondering who, if anyone, the BBC would field. And, what do you know, it was my old friend, Alan Yentob! The corporation’s creative director looked extremely sage in his tortoiseshell spectacles – the reassuring, round kind worn by bluestockings in Cambridge circa 1935 – and he spoke soothingly of the future, in the manner of a Hampstead therapist who believes his patient, the hysteric, will shortly turn a corner. But even he seemed to be speaking the weird BBC gobbledegook of which David Dimbleby had complained on Today only hours before (in about ten hours of coverage of this saga, Dimbles has been the only insider I’ve heard whose sentences made proper sense), and I wondered slightly why Emily Maitlis, the presenter, didn’t appear more exasperated. It was as if – uh oh . . . here’s another scary childhood memory rushing before my eyes – he’d blown down her nostrils, a technique Barbara Woodhouse used to use with frisky horses.

Will all this end any time soon? I hope so. I miss the old soundtrack of my life; the long days at my desk lack their usual audio-visual punctuation. Lift your eyes from your navel, BBC people. Your country still needs you.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC