Our top story of the day: new sets please, we're British
Channel 4 News C4 Newsnight BBC2
Sunday 10 January 1999
The timing was absolutely right. This was the first time we had heard Tony Blair comment on Mandelson-Robinson-Whelan, and it was good thinking to send Elinor Goodman down to South Africa to do the interview.
But what made it good television, and not just for the sort of people who drink with Charlie Whelan in the Red Lion in Westminster, was that we had a chance to see how the Prime Minister reacted to adversity, not something he's had a lot of practice with recently.
I thought he was impressive. He made his point, that the media exaggerate the split between him and Gordon Brown, and indeed spent too much time fishing for splits, but he made it without whingeing excessively. This was not IATFOTP ("it's all the fault of the press"). Perhaps it says something about me, but I liked and trusted this Prime Minister, with his back at least approaching a wall, rather more than the cocky Blair of sunnier days.
The Blair interview was not the only thing C4N did right last week. Peter Morgan and Duncan Campbell produced a truly extraordinary report on "Burlington". This is the underground city near Corsham in Wiltshire to which our masters proposed to withdraw in time of nuclear war. They planned to leave the rest of us crisped to a cinder or rotted with radiation sickness, but happy in our dying moments that the Royal Navy was still calmly commanded from an underground stone quarry near Bath. Next door Harold Wilson or whoever happened to be Prime Minister at the time, plus the Cabinet and a few thousand civil servants, were to be comfortably ensconced with a bakery and, what else, a pub, not to mention 25 miles of tunnels, and enough supplies for a year.
Now there is a sense in which this is a cheap shot. All governments protect themselves, and in the Cold War they all had bunkers to protect themselves from nuclear war. Certainly the President of the United States had one in West Virginia. And Duncan Campbell has been obsessed with secret war, underground tunnels and official iniquity to the verge of paranoia for years.
Even so, he and Peter Morgan, the reporter, told us some important things about our governments, past and present. And they produced one truly magic moment. For there is a new Burlington, just down the road from the old one.
Presumably that is where the Government still has plans to retreat, even if nuclear war is less likely now, if things get too rough in the Sun and the Mirror. In the best tradition of the late lamented World in Action, Morgan and Campbell showed up at the gate of the new Burlington to doorstep it, if you can doorstep a startled security man a few hundred feet underground. They talked to the unfortunate man and asked if he was speaking from the underground seat of government. That drew what Jon Snow rightly, and urbanely, called "one of the most memorable of no comments".
For C4N, too, David Smith has covered the truly bizarre events in Washington with real distinction. He has the trick of delivering his report like someone speaking, not reading it or trying to remember it, so that you feel you are listening to a knowledgeable friend. On Thursday he hit exactly the right phrase to describe the mood of the US, "a nation in dismay".
Which brings me to Newsnight. The new green-and-red set is tasteful, and Jeremy Paxman is as pleasantly acerbic as ever, though without those preposterous Tory ministers to torment his heart no longer quite seems in it. And Newsnight can draw on tried and true BBC correspondents, such as Peter Marshall. So why is it so annoying? I think I've discovered what the trouble is (for me, at least). The trouble with Newsnight is Kirsty Wark. At first, when she was new and nervous, there was something touching about her slightly gauche air, blundering into things she didn't seem to have taken the trouble to understand. Now her conceit has become embarrassing.
Last week she did a dire double-header with David Gergen, the very able and pleasant Republican who has been working for Clinton in the White House, and Senator Judd Gregg, Republican, of New Hampshire. It was a disaster.
She peppered them both with ignorant questions and impertinent interruptions and ended up, absurdly, by asking Senator Gregg, who is about to take part in a trial of the greatest possible constitutional and political importance to his country, whether Americans weren't a bit "obsessed" with the Clinton impeachment. Obsessed? Spare us.
Then, two days later, she was off to Cardiff, where she began to patronise a number of Welsh people with questions such as "Aren't you a bit chippy about being Welsh?" Newsnight is an important programme, one of the BBC's flagships in current affairs. Why is it, when there are so many talented journalists around at the BBC, that this woman, who comes across as profoundly superficial, is being built up, not indeed as a reporter, but as some kind of star?
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