The feeding frenzy engulfing Newsnight is making me angry. Steve Hewlett is as good a media commentator as they get but what was it he said about the programme, on the programme, on Friday, when it submitted itself to such an extraordinary act of self-flagellation? That it’s “stock in trade is discussion of topical issues… It has always had a tradition of doing film pieces but most of them are not investigations.” What a terribly gross under-estimation of what the programme does.
Its discussions can certainly be as good as they get – Steve Coogan ripping into the News of the World’s Paul McMullan, unmissable in June, dumped onto the past history pile now - was one of the high tide marks of the hacking story. But I tell you that when you’re out there in some place, reporting on a news story when Newsnight is also about, then there’s an additional inbuilt pressure - because they reach parts that many others don’t. No investigations? What about Peter Taylor on waterboarding? And Paul Mason on the scandal of Britain’s need for food banks was one of the most compelling recent portraits of austerity Britain. Who told us that the RAF may be paying billions too much for new air-to-air refuelling aircraft?
Eddie Mair has received paeans of praise for his handling of the programme on Friday night but I’ll beg to differ on that one. Let’s have some neutrality and humility, by all means, but the way that the programme’s new host took it apart seemed to be hovering somewhere between schadenfreude and mockery. “Is Newsnight toast?” he asked. And as the sound to the Reading East MP Rob Wilson failed: “Oh great, now even the sound isn’t working… the journalism isn’t working….” You wonder how brilliant operators like Liz MacKean, Peter Marshall, Mark Urban and some of best news presenters – Emily Maitlis and Kirsty Wark as well as Paxman – felt about this ritual annihilation from the man who has only just taken their chair.
As things stand, there have been a few apologies from those whose little smart interventions in that often vicious cesspit called Twitter compounded things by turning the programme’s bad journalism into a direct falsehood. (“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.”, said Sally Bercow). But with the exception of yesterday’s Independent on Sunday there has been precious little evidence that anyone believes that back story to all of this is the North Wales children who have died, rather than the Director General who resigned. Yes, all the hallmarks of a feeding frenzy for sure.
Who believes that we can’t trust the BBC? No-one. So don’t let the frenzy kill off this programme. Watching it constitutes the final act of the day for those who are looking for a better appreciation of the world out there, rather than anything definable in 140 miserable characters.