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10 December 2015

The sad demise of Newsnight: how to save a sinking ship

The show’s expertise seems to be leaching away. Too often, its journalists end up telling me something I already know.

By Rachel Cooke

Not to sound too pompous or anything, but . . . whither Newsnight? Is it dying, or is it more throbbingly vital than ever in this, the age of extreme news? It should, of course, be the latter. Someone, somewhere, has to mediate the hue and cry. But as a once-loyal viewer who now frequently slopes off to bed to read at the appointed hour, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned for its future. First, Laura Kuenssberg, its most tenacious presenter, went off to fill Nick Robinson’s shoes as the BBC’s political editor; now Allegra Stratton, its excellently calm and pithy political editor, is to join ITV. One thinks, at this point, of sinking ships, if not of rats.

What it’s up against is perfectly obvious: the dizzying output of news elsewhere; the beefing up of the ten o’clock news shows; the increasing reluctance of serious politicians to submit to a grilling. But some of its problems are of its own devising. It’s clear by now that the patient and conciliatory style of Evan Davis, a presenter I very much enjoy elsewhere (on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, for instance), doesn’t work on Newsnight. Oh,the times I’ve ended up yelling at the telly in frustration as he lets another evasive little worm off the hook. The show’s expertise also seems to be leaching away. Too often, its journalists end up telling me something I already know. I want Newsnight to stand at an angle to the news cycle, with all the richness and depth that implies. But on a quiet day it feels to me like yet more wafer-thin bullshit. Sorry if this sounds a little blunt.

So what is to be done? Either it must be completely rethought, or it should be ditched, pronto, and sod the teeth gnashing that such a move would inevitably provoke among the 65 or so sad and self-important souls who sit at home in their pyjamas tweeting about it (bullshit clinging to the shirt tails of bullshit: it’s neither edifying nor very interesting).

If I was going to rethink it, I would not only triple its budget (though as the BBC’s enemies circle, seriousness is almost without price), I would attempt to second journalists and film-makers from elsewhere in the corporation – Vanessa Engle, say, or Peter Taylor – to work on long-term projects. I would give Stephen Smith, who does the culture beat remarkably creatively, given the parameters in which he must work, more time and vastly more love.

And I would reduce by half the amount of political navel-gazing that goes on, which feels to most viewers, me included, to be verging on the incestuous, consisting as it does of various already well-acquainted and self-publicising newspaper columnists and B-list politicians (stand up, Mary Creagh MP) wittering on uninformatively about nothing that is very important while the world burns. I can’t be the only viewer who wonders why these people don’t occasionally say to the Newsnight researchers: “No, I can’t come on and talk about that, for the simple reason that I don’t really know very much about it.” But, equally, why does anyone want to book them in the first place?

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And now that’s off my chest – it’s only because I care, you understand – let us move on to this week’s public school boy historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who is travelling through Spain (Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC4) in a bright blue shirt that may or may not have come from Turnbull & Asser.

His stories of Islamic Spain, in particular, are exciting and pertinent, given that the word “caliphate” is once again dancing alarmingly on the southern European breeze. But I was rather amused to see that in one of the very few detailed discussions he shared with another (male) historian, the subject up for debate was . . . concubines. Also, can you imagine a female presenter – or even a bloke who didn’t attend a posh school – announcing sombrely, “I come both as historian and traveller”?

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Slight delusions of grandeur there, I think. Like Hannibal, Sebag Montefiore seems, as he might put it, to be just a little in love with “the plenitude and the panoply of his own power”. OK, on his head is a Panama hat, not a crown. But, you know, in this context: same difference

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires