It Doesn’t Matter Whether or Not You Watch Newsnight

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There has been something of an outcry since the BBC said it was cutting back “Newsnight”. Fans and former stars of the show have been lining up to say how wonderful and important it is.

In her announcement, Deborah Turness CEO, BBC News and Current Affairs said they had considered axing the news-magazine show altogether, “but we’ve listened to the most crucial voice – our audiences. They told us that for them, “Newsnight” is an important BBC brand, and that what they most value is the discussion and debate at the end of each day.” However, it is still being cut to just 30 minutes, with staffing slashed and a new focus on studio debates instead of original reporting and films.

“There will be people – both inside and outside the BBC – who’ll worry this change means less investigative journalism across BBC News. That “Newsnight’s” particular type of gritty, independent, dogged reporting will disappear, leaving the BBC poorer for it” said Turness. “This will not be the case.” 

Hmmm. It is hard to believe that. 

Some of this, as I understand it, is because the emphasis is now on pure news – as in the rolling headlines and bulletins. After all, that is Turness’s background. So the BBC can talk about a reorganised investigations unit and a beefed up BBC Verify team, but there is no doubt reducing to rubble the show that got the Prince Andrew interview doesn’t do much for the organisation’s credibility as an agenda setter.

The producer of that infamous interview, Sam McAlister, told me:

The demise of the programme that is the very essence of public service broadcasting is a very bad mistake. Without “Newsnight”, the Prince Andrew interview would never have happened. Power will sleep a little sounder every time it’s reduced.

The financial pressure the BBC is facing is real and severe. That will inevitably have an impact on the work it can do. “But they’ve made choices,” as one well-placed source put it. They added that chipping away at shows like “Newsnight”, which also used to host weekly culture debates alongside hard news and politics reports, was “killing off all the character” in BBC programming. 

The cynic in me would ask how many of the people complaining about the demise of “Newsnight” actually watch it regularly, if at all. I don’t remember the last time I settled down to watch the show on a weeknight. That isn’t really the point though. The BBC should be making stuff that its commercial rivals cannot or will not. A late-night debate show could be good if done well, but I suspect it is going to be set up to be combative and shouty, with the aim of generating viral social clips. We have more than enough of that already.

To justify the licence fee, the BBC should provide less heat and more light. This decision does not help do that.



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