Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The new presenter of ‘Newsnight’ doesn’t have Paxo’s aggressive style, but he is a force to be reckoned with

More than 20 years after he joined the BBC as an economics correspondent, Evan Davis still has to put up with detractors who would like to portray him as something of a softie.

He is “dainty”, “pixie-like”, “lightweight” and “with the figure of a size zero model”, according to the loaded barbs in the right-wing diary columns and leader pages. But Davis will not be intimidated for the simple reason that he believes the insinuation that he is a pushover is quite wrong. Colleagues remark not only on his great intellect but on his supreme self-confidence.

From the moment he was announced as the successor to Jeremy Paxman as lead presenter of Newsnight, Davis has been the subject of comparisons with the great inquisitor of the BBC flagship current affairs show. It might be right to suggest that Davis is not as aggressive in his interviewing as a man who was often described as a Rottweiler, but his less direct style can be equally effective. Where interviewees always approached Paxman with guard held high and rehearsed responses at the ready, Davis’s genial disposition can lower defences and generate a more revealing dialogue.

He has demonstrated as much during nearly seven years as a presenter on Radio 4’s Today. Editor Jamie Angus credits Davis with having done more than anyone to “define the current sound of Today”, thanks to his “endless enthusiasm” and “original editorial insight”.

 

For Newsnight, Davis represents something fresh for a programme that is going through a calculated transition. Having become known for its tone of world-weary cynicism, it will be imbued with the new lead presenter’s open curiosity. Older viewers will remember his time as the show’s economics editor, when Paxman nicknamed him “Tigger” because of his bouncy presence.

Some observers had hoped that Paxo’s departure in June would create an opportunity for a female lead, but the diversity police would struggle to write off Davis as another middle-aged, Oxbridge-educated white male from the Home Counties – even if that’s exactly what he is.

There is something about the boundless energy that Angus referred to that makes Davis seem younger than his 52 years. He cuts a very modern figure. A distinctive shaven head and sticking-out ears mean he is not conventionally telegenic – and that’s also seen as to his advantage. The fact that he is openly gay (his French partner is a landscape architect) also helps him stand out, although the right-wing papers that obsess over his sexuality and rumoured tastes in intimate body art are still trying to link his private life with a political agenda.

Given that titles such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have consistently attempted to characterise Newsnight as a nest of left-leaning journalists led by Ian Katz, the former deputy editor of The Guardian, Davis will know he is in for a bumpy ride. But the “scary prospect” of the prestige role, he says, was one he couldn’t resist. “How could I turn down the offer… of treading in the footsteps of some of the best television presenters in the business?”

The fact that he has hosted one of BBC2’s most popular shows, Dragons’ Den, for nearly a decade will smooth his return to television news. Although it was not a significant factor in his appointment, it means he has a high public profile and – in a broader role than Paxman’s – is set to work “in the field” hosting packages as well as those in the studio.

Davis was regarded as one of about four possible candidates for the job, alongside big hitters such as Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Radio 4 colleague Eddie Mair and BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

More than anything else, Newsnight has hired him for his forensic interviewing approach. “He doesn’t go for the shins with the first question but builds in a devastating way,” said one BBC colleague.

According to Angus: “He has a great lightness of touch and ability to deal courteously and civilly with people while pressing his point quite intensely.”

Davis was, however, severely criticised in January following a Today interview with Lord Mandelson on the EU referendum. Lord Tebbit described the exchange as “pathetically obsequious”, and the MP Mark Reckless said the Labour peer had been given an “easy ride”.

It has been noted that during his student days (he read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, and public administration at Harvard), Davis was a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party. He was also criticised for his ferocious questioning of the Chancellor George Osborne in December, with calls for him to be referred to the broadcast regulator Ofcom for his “hostility”. That rather scotched the notion of Davis as a dainty pushover.

As for those who claim a left-wing bias, they should know that David Cameron’s director of communications has spoken of Davis in glowing terms. “He’s an extraordinary talent,” said Craig Oliver, talking to this newspaper in 2007 when he was editor of the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and Davis had just been appointed to Today. “When you compare him to others in the broadcasting world, he is in a different league. He has wit and self-deprecation and a huge amount of intellectual honesty.”

After university, Davis – who is the son of South African immigrants and grew up in Surrey – worked as an economist for the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the London Business School. He came to journalism in his thirties.

Justin Webb, his presenting colleague on Today, says that Davis’s numeracy marks him out from other interviewers. “He is actually excited by numbers in a way that very few journalists are.” Webb recalls how a “genuinely annoyed” Davis once rebuked a colleague live on air for using the word “stat”. “That’s not a stat, it’s a fact!” said the former economist. Being comfortable with data – which is increasingly important in modern media and politics – enables Davis to challenge evasive interviewees.

When Webb joins Davis in the Today newsroom at 4am and they go through the ritual of serving themselves drinks from the office coffee machine, he is glad to have the company of an “amiable, witty and genial person”. He says it “doesn’t compute” that such a personality necessarily produces a mild interviewer and emphasises that Davis shows no anxiety in the studio. “He’s immensely strong and pretty confident of his own abilities.”

That comment echoes one made by Adrian Chiles, who while presenting BBC2’s Working Lunch was given an award for business journalism – which Davis had previously won. “I’m just not worthy,” admitted Chiles to Davis, who “nodded, quite seriously” in response.

According to Webb, Davis – with his “circumlocutory style”– has been responsible for developing the tone of Today from the “relentless” pursuit of the “courtroom drama” interview to an “educated intelligent conversation”. He says much of the audience have enjoyed the change, though some continue to demand that powerful figures are treated with aggression.

Those Newsnight viewers who always tuned in to see Paxman working over a politician may feel they are no longer getting their regular diet of red meat. But Evan Davis may just expand their palate.

Born: 8 April 1962, Surrey.

Family: Parents emigrated from South Africa. Father was an electronics engineer.

Education: Ashcombe School, Dorking. Studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, where he edited the student newspaper, ‘Cherwell’.

Career: Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies before joining BBC in 1993. Became a presenter on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ in 2008. Also presents ‘Dragons’ Den’.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own