Paxo and me: Peter Barron on editing 'Newsnight'

With the first of the star-studded '10 Days to War' shorts going out tonight, Peter Barron tells Ian Burrell why the dramas make stimulating 'hors d'oeuvres' to his 'Newsnight'
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The Independent Online

Pinned on the wall above the desk occupied by Peter Barron, the editor of Newsnight, hangs a conical diagram of the flagship current-affairs programme's master plan for expanding its audience.

At the narrow end of the funnel is the smallest but most accessible segment of viewers, labelled "opinion formers", the type of people who feel professionally obliged to watch the show every evening. Then comes a slightly larger faction, the "dedicated loyalists", who have no work-related connection to the programme but are ardent fans nonetheless. Beyond these is a broad group termed the "grumpy old men", many of them believed to be regular listeners to Radio Five Live, some of them hot under the collar over such things as European integration and mass immigration, but still deemed possible additions to Newsnight's ratings.

Finally, there is the biggest constituency of all – nervously holding their remote controls before the programme menu – the people collectively known as "intimidated potential viewers". According to Barron, these are people who look on the Jeremy Paxman-hosted show and think: "It's that clever club that we're not able to come into." The Newsnight editor wants to hold out a hand to help them on board. "We are trying to say, 'We are not like that at all. If you did watch it you might find out how enjoyable and not taking itself too seriously it is'."

Barron's latest wheeze for growing the Newsnight family is unorthodox, to say the least. He has assembled an all-star cast of actors that would grace any feature film – Kenneth Branagh, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Conti and Art Malik, to name but a few. They will appear in a series of eight 12-minute films, collectively named 10 Days to War, that will run from tonight at the start of Newsnight's 10.30pm BBC2 slot, and provide a springboard for the current-affairs programme to debate issues raised in the dramas, by questioning the real-life characters portrayed in the films (see 'Acts of War' opposite).

Calling on the services of famous actors might seem a drastic measure to reach out to all those "intimidated potentials" and "grumpy old men", but Barron, 45, says that he is responding to the concerns of the programme's core audience, who are insistent that the events that led to war in Iraq should be fully exposed.

"Our viewers over the last five years have been constantly emailing, saying: 'Why have you moved on from the legality of war and WMD? Why aren't you picking over those details in the run-up to war?'" He detects that, for a significant proportion of the population, Iraq is a "great scar on the public psyche that has never properly healed".

Though 10 Days to War will not run under the banner of Newsnight, it has drawn on the news programme's resources, and Barron says he is conscious of the risk of blurring the roles of journalist and thespian. "These are dramas, let's be clear about that, but the detail of them has been very intensively researched by the journalists working on the project," he says, in his Ulster brogue. "They have been made in association with Newsnight, but they are not branded as 'Newsnight dramas', they stand alone."

On a big whiteboard in Barron's office, the editor has written up the names of guests already lined up to respond in studio discussions to what he terms the "hors d'oeuvres" of the short films. The names of Lord Butler and Sir Jeremy Greenstock are up there, along with Francis Brooke (adviser to controversial Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi) and the Labour politicians Anne Campbell and Paul Stinchcombe.

In spite of the conical diagram, Newsnight has recently been piling on the viewers without having to do very much at all, being the beneficiary of ITN's so-far flawed strategy to engage in a head-to-head struggle with the BBC's Ten O'Clock News. Apart from getting trounced by its rival bulletin, ITV's News at Ten has unwittingly handed a couple of hundred thousand extra viewers to Newsnight, pushing the audience above a million. "Clearly, there must be a couple of hundred thousand people who are now flicking around at that time, looking for something, and quite a number of them have come to Newsnight."

With bulletins being presented in an increasingly unconventional style, Barron implies that it is a challenge to keep his programme distinct from the BBC1 news that precedes it. "They are increasingly bending the genre, so we need to be careful about that," he says, revealing that any edition of Newsnight that comes too close to replicating the bulletin is disparagingly referred to within the office as a "Fat Ten".

Newsnight stands out because of its roster of presenters, of course, particularly Paxo, who was recently named Presenter of the Year by the Royal Television Society. Paxman's profile means that he frequently finds himself in the firing line, mostly from those who consider him overly aggressive towards his interviewees and, conversely, from one critic who complained that politicians were starting to be amused by him rather than afraid.

As Paxman sits in a nearby office preparing for that evening's edition, Barron defends his star presenter. "Jeremy's got a toolbox of a whole range of different styles. Some interviews are looking for information, some are reflective, some are chewing the fat, and some are clearly putting people on the spot. We know from our research that viewers want us to be dogged in getting the answers to the questions. Jeremy is so appreciated because he's looking for the answers and is supernaturally talented at asking the questions that the viewer wants asked at the moment they want it asked. The idea that interviewing is default aggressive is a caricature."

He is, however, aware that some politicians are seeking out alternatives to the Newsnight grilling. "In recent years, politicians have said, 'Why should we go on Newsnight – wouldn't it be better to go on the Richard & Judy show, where we'll be asked easy questions?'. Personally, I think that, in the end, that tells against them. Clearly, there is a trend. I was at the French Embassy today, and they were saying that the trend in France is for politicians just to do entertainment shows."

Barron, a former BBC trainee who cut his teeth on Newsnight but has also worked at Channel 4 News and ITV, attracts his own share of controversy. He was advisory chair of last year's Edinburgh Television Festival, persuading Paxman to deliver the set-piece lecture on the failings of the industry. At the same event, Barron paved the way for the scrapping of the BBC's special "Planet Relief" project by saying: "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet." He says that he is determined to keep the climate-change debate open. "My personal view is that the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is happening, but I don't like 100 per cent certainty or dogma in anything."

Recently, he engaged in a very public spat with the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, after Newsnight "turned over" an exclusive story on Islamic extremism that it had been given by Policy Exchange, the right-of-centre think tank chaired by Moore. Newsnight preferred to highlight concerns over the validity of the think tank's evidence. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Moore accused Barron of a "catalogue of bad faith". The Newsnight man counters that Moore is guilty of "bad journalism", and has never explained doubts over the validity of receipts used by the think tank to prove purchase of some radical literature.

Barron is a high-flyer who was recently tipped as a possible controller of BBC1, though he says that he's "not remotely qualified". But then, the newsman with a penchant for drama gives an indication of his ambition to step centre stage: "You know, I'm very interested in television, and of course I'd like to work in television more broadly than current affairs in future."

Acts of War: The stories behind the invasion of Iraq

Given the pain suffered by the BBC over its previous attempts to decipher the events that led to the invasion of Iraq, some might be surprised by its plans to produce a series of dramatic reconstructions of some of the critical stories in the days prior to the war.

Yet Newsnight viewers remain so fascinated and exercised by this period that the writer Ronan Bennett was hired to make 10 Days to War, a series of eight short films that will attempt – through the medium of drama – to enhance understanding of what actually went on.

The production team felt that there was little to be gained by featuring the best-known political protagonists. "From an early stage, we decided we weren't going to dramatise Blair or Bush or Saddam, people with high public profiles," says Colin Barr, executive producer. "We wanted to find the stories that were backstage, personal dramas that people wouldn't necessarily know about."

So Juliet Stevenson plays Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a Foreign Office lawyer concerned by the legality of the war. Harriet Walter plays Anne Campbell, the Labour MP who had to wrestle with her conscience at the crucial House of Commons vote on the war.

Patrick Malahide plays Sir Jeremy Greenstock, UK ambassador to the UN, and Kenneth Branagh appears in the final short as Colonel Tim Collins as he addresses British soldiers before battle began. These are all events not previously captured on film.

"The most important thing, from my point of view, was to deliver stories that could not have been delivered by documentary or news cameras at the time," says Barr. "There was no point simply dramatising events that people had already seen in another form."

With the backing of the director of BBC Vision, Jana Bennett, the production team was able to draw on half-a-dozen researchers seconded from Newsnight and Panorama. "The films have an essence of Newsnight in terms of the journalistic research that went into them, and Newsnight is quite keen on the idea of being able to spring off the drama," says Barr, who also stresses that the films, all 10-12 minutes long, are not intended to be informed by hindsight.

"It's tricky trying to shed yourself of five years of subsequent knowledge, but these films will only work if you are taking people back and making them feel what it might have been like for people living through it at that moment," he says, adding: "These films won't work if they tell people stuff – that's the job of current affairs and documentaries. They will only work if they make people feel things, if they are moved one way or the other."

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