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18 January 2023

Can Newsnight recapture its lost glory?

With declining viewing numbers and high-profile resignations at the flagship news programme, Victoria Derbyshire speaks on the troubles at the BBC.

By William Turvill

Interviewing an interviewer is never straightforward. When I asked Victoria Derbyshire, who has presented Newsnight since September last year, to nominate her best moments from the show so far, she responded: “I haven’t been there long you know, William. Bloody hell!” When I asked if she believed anyone took her less seriously after her 2020 appearance on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! she replied: “Why? Do you take me less seriously?” No, I said. “Good.” She gave an authoritative nod. I asked her about the reported “brain drain” at the BBC, following the departures of Emily Maitlis, Andrew Marr and others, and she arched an eyebrow. “Do you think there’s really been a brain drain?”

I met Derbyshire in a Caffé Nero next to Broadcasting House in London, on a wet Tuesday morning. We both arrived seven minutes early and Derbyshire, shaking off her black umbrella and shedding her leopard-print coat, found us armchairs at the back of the café. There was a queue for drinks so we held off ordering – though 30 minutes later, feeling slightly dazed by Derbyshire’s counter-attacks, I pointed out that the queue had shrunk. She insisted on paying but was taken aback by my order. “A chai latte?” she repeated in a la-di-da tone. “They might not do them.” They did. Derbyshire ordered tea.

Newsnight has been beset by troubles and declining viewing numbers. In 2019, the programme’s then lead presenter, Emily Maitlis, landed an exclusive interview with Prince Andrew. But the following year, she was rebuked for breaching BBC impartiality guidelines after she stated on air that Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules: “the country can see that and it’s shocked the government cannot”. The programme has since seen several high-profile departures – including its editor Esme Wren; Maitlis and former policy editor Lewis Goodall, who together with Jon Sopel, another departure from the BBC, launched The News Agents podcast. Woman’s Hour host Emma Barnett has also left. With podcasts and opinion-based news on the rise and an audience increasingly accustomed to choosing when they consume their news, persuading people to tune in every weeknight to Newsnight will only become more difficult. According to the BBC, Newsnight still attracts an average of 500,000 viewers a day, down from around 600,000 a decade ago.

Derbyshire told me one of her goals is to talk to more “normal people”, whatever that means. “Obviously, politicians have a role to play. As do experts and academics, but occasionally Newsnight used to discuss a subject without actually speaking to anyone affected by the policy.” She cited a recent debate on raising benefits in line with inflation. “We talked to people on benefits,” she said. “I don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t been there that day.”

One of Newsnight’s main draws is its encounters with powerful people. Has political interviewing changed in recent years? “Well, no one does a Paxman any more, do they?” By this Derbyshire meant the “attack-dog-style interview, often with frequent interruptions and sometimes with a sneery tone. None of that is a criticism – I love Jeremy Paxman.”

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[See also: What Norman Mailer can teach us]

I later spoke to Derbyshire’s editor, Stewart Maclean, who supported her assessment. He cited internal research showing that the public were “weary of pugilistic, Punch and Judy back-and-forths, gotcha-style questions”. Derbyshire’s strength was that “she’s firm but she’s not rude”, he said. In September, when she believed the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski was evading questions about the mini-Budget, she cut him off: “I’m going to stop you there. Because every question I ask you’re ignoring.” In November, when the Russian ambassador asked Derbyshire to stop interrupting him, she shot back: “Don’t interrupt me as well, Sir.” Today’s audience, she told me, “still want the forensic questioning and the overt calling out of untruths or evasions”.

In addition to Newsnight, Derbyshire is a host of Ukrainecast, a BBC Sounds podcast that launched hours after Russia began its invasion. But elsewhere the corporation is busy cutting costs; around 70 people in London are expected to lose their jobs as the domestic news channel is merged with BBC World News, and it was reported that three presenters resigned after being asked to interview for their jobs. Derbyshire is no longer based in the main newsroom but suspects there is an “unhappy” atmosphere. “I feel bad for them,” she said. “I understand the end-goal, but nevertheless it has a impact on people’s lives and that’s tough.”

In December, the New Statesman revealed that Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member and Theresa May’s former director of communications, had addressed a Newsnight editorial meeting. (At last year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, Maitlis alleged that Gibb was an “active agent of the Conservative Party”.) At the meeting, Gibb told staff he “despaired” at some programming, claiming it was “dripping with revealed preferences”. Both Derbyshire and Maclean, however, played down the significance of Gibb’s presence at the meeting. Derbyshire said she had missed much of it – “I had to go halfway through to prep the programme” – while Maclean said Gibb was one of several “critics” he invited to speak to staff. He said he did not agree with all of Gibb’s criticisms, and added that it was “made clear in the meeting that he’s not in charge”. I asked Derbyshire if she had faced accusations of bias. “I haven’t so far – we work hard to be fair.”

Derbyshire, 54, was born in Lancashire. She attended the fee-paying Bury Grammar School for Girls before studying English at the University of Liverpool, and then trained to be a journalist at Preston Polytechnic. She started out in BBC local radio, joining BBC Radio 5 Live in her late twenties. She said she tried to “sound posh” before realising this was “stupid” and unnecessary. When I asked if there are too many “posh” accents at the BBC, she reflected that “across the media, you will hear more people who, with respect, speak like you” than is proportionate.

Between 2015 and 2020, Derbyshire fronted an eponymous BBC Two show on weekday mornings. There, she gained a reputation for persuading interviewees to open up about traumatic experiences. (Derbyshire has spoken publicly about having breast cancer, and an abusive father.) At the 2018 Royal Television Society awards she won Interview of the Year, for a broadcast in which former youth footballers spoke to her about being sexually abused by coaches.

In 2020, after reading about plans to axe her show, Derbyshire stalked the floors of Broadcasting House to confront her bosses. She took issue with my use of the word “confront”, saying: “I doorstepped them. They walked out of a meeting room and I said: ‘Ahh, just the people I wanted to see.’” I asked if she had worried that this would damage her career. “I felt I was defending the audience we wanted to reach,” she said. Her efforts were to no avail. Derbyshire continued to present for BBC news channels, and was paid between £240,000 and £245,000 by the corporation last year. When I asked Maclean why he chose Derbyshire to present Newsnight alongside Kirsty Wark, he said: “She’s a tenacious journalist, who’s connected with the real concerns of people in the country.”

As Victoria Derbyshire said, she hasn’t been at Newsnight long, and it is too soon to judge either her or the programme under its new leadership. But 2023 will be a critical year. The idea of speaking to “normal people” and steering clear of “Punch and Judy” politics is commendable, but it risks diminishing Newsnight’s reputation and influence. “This year I would like to do more big interviews. I would like to get cracking on some investigations. We want to make some noise.”

[See also: Maria Ressa: “The law was bent to the point it was broken”]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis