There was a time when I looked forward to BBC2's Newsnight. I felt sparks might fly, particularly if Jeremy Paxman were in charge. Along with Radio Four's Today programme, it provided by far the most informative political forum in broadcasting, though in the heyday of New Labour's virtual one-party state it was a bit too much part of the project for my tastes.
I still watch Newsnight, but no longer switch on with much sense of excitement. Something has gone. This is not just a personal view. Many of my friends, journalists and non-journalists, grumble about the programme. The viewing figures would appear to confirm it is on the slide. According to the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB), the average audience is around 450,000 viewers, approximately half what it was a decade ago. BARB gave Newsnight an audience of a mere 166,000 for May 19, though the BBC claims 257,000, and points out that this was a Thursday, an evening on which BBC1's Question Time draws viewers away from Newsnight.
Still, the figures aren't great. Its defenders blame variously the effect of the internet, 24-hour rolling news, and even the general dumbing down of society. These may all be factors, but BBC executives should be asking themselves whether there isn't something amiss with the programme. A recent entry in her blog by Helen Boaden, BBC's head of news, was remarkably uncritical. She claimed that over a lively summer Newsnight had attracted more than a million viewers on 13 occasions, and can find little or nothing wrong with it.
Part of the problem is Jeremy Paxman, who has been with the programme for 22 years. He is still by far the best thing about it, of course, and my heart always slightly sinks when he is not there, which seems to be increasingly often these days. Paxo still pulls in more viewers than the other presenters, but even his warmest admirers would not deny that the old gladiatorial glint in his eye has dimmed, and that he increasingly views life with an amused detachment which, though a rather attractive quality, inevitably serves to make him a less formidable interviewer than he was.
Paxo is a problem in another sense in that, notwithstanding his declining powers, he still so outshines the other presenters as to make an edition of Newsnight without him something of an anti-climax even before it begins. Where are the new Jeremy Paxmans? (Where, one might equally ask, are the young John Humphrys?) Politicians are increasingly well-schooled in the arts of evasion, and the general dearth of forensic, unshakeably robust and clued-up younger interviewers is alarming. On Newsnight, Emily Maitlis can be commendably tenacious, though she sometimes gives off an air of having wandered in from a photo-shoot, and seems, besides, not to be enough of a permanent fixture, so she is sometimes reduced to reading BBC1 news.
Another of the programme's shortcomings concerns its specialists and reporters. I exclude Michael Crick, the splendidly cussed and well-informed political editor, but some of his colleagues lack authority, and, to be brutally frank, television presence. In the past, some of Newsnight's specialists such as Mark Mardell and Stephanie Flanders have gone on to major roles in mainstream BBC news, but few of the present crop look as though they will make that transition.
Even with a stronger cast of presenters and reporters, Newsnight would struggle with its present format. It has dumbed down over recent years, a recent risible low point being Paxo's embarrassed chairing of a discussion on female grooming. Attempts at humour are usually laboured – for example, the programme's adoption of a roundabout (or was that a bad dream?). These trends have quickened under the editorship of Peter Rippon, a former editor of the PM programme on Radio 4, said by his critics not to understand TV. Helen Boaden and other BBC executives need to do some thinking about Newsnight. It is in decline. If nothing is done, the danger is that the whole thing may be swept away in a fit of despair. I am in favour of a makeover, not abolition. Who can doubt that we need an authoritative nightly current affairs programme which provides serious analysis of domestic and international events – there is plenty of reporting around – and holds politicians to account? Newsnight is not exactly supplying that.
Murdoch's humility has its limits
Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, was paid $33m (nearly £21m) last year. This included a cash bonus of $12.5m (£7.7m).
Not bad money. You could employ 25 national newspaper editors or 100 star columnists for that amount. I don't begrudge him. Perhaps he is worth it. In financial terms News Corp is doing pretty well. But should he have trousered the bonus?
Because of the phone-hacking scandal, his son James, who runs the British operation, turned down a bonus of $6m, while accepting a pay package of $12m.
It was not much of a sacrifice, perhaps, but it was at least a token.
Shouldn't his father have done the same? After all, Murdoch senior has declared that he was "humbled" by the affair, and there is no doubt that the reputation of News Corp has suffered. The man at the top should have been seen to take a hit.
Humility is evidently fine so long as it doesn't involve making an actual sacrifice.