A mate of mine who is a director at the BBC sent me a text late on Friday that read: “Newsnight might not survive this”. Given he has worked on the programme, and was in regular touch with others who still do, this struck me as pretty serious. And that was before Director General George Entwhistle resigned, Chairman Chris Patten repeatedly refused to defend it when invited to do so by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning, and other heads rolled in a senior figure merry-go-round.
I'm always suspicious of those who say the BBC is facing the “worst crisis in its history”, because it's always the same people saying it, and they say it so often that at least some of the time they can't be right. Yet it's true that, though the BBC has seen worse, Newsnight has not: this really is the worst crisis in its history. And with good reason.
Already its Editor, Peter Rippon, has taken leave, and it may yet be proven that he pulled an investigation into Jimmy Savile's vile predations because of pressure from his seniors - a disgrace if true. It is also shocking that senior figures on the programme should broadcast defamatory allegations about the Tory peer Lord Macalpine to millions of viewers without ensuring that the story stood up.
Yet I believe it would be a terrible error for the Corporation to react to these scandals by throwing Newsnight onto the scrapheap where Entwhistle and Rippon now reside. To do so would convert two serious editorial failures into a lasting injury to the life of the nation.
Naturally, this being the BBC, we hold Newsnight to exceptionally high standards. But British newspapers make editorial misjudgements on a comparable scale every day, and we don't expect them to pack up because of them. True, they are not funded by a poll tax; but newspaper editors have been known to stay in their job after doing much worse.
It should be observed too that, as Patten says, those rival media now pouring scorn on Newsnight are a familiar foe of the BBC and, in the case of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, possibly vengeful after the corporation's brutal coverage of the phone-hacking saga.
To merely rebrand the show with new producers, presenters and studio - as some insiders are suggesting - would be synthetic. Viewers would see through it immediately. But the last and best reason to keep Newsnight on air is simply that with any other course so much that is so good would be lost forever.
Since its first broadcast on January 30th 1980, Newsnight has produced countless brilliant exclusives and investigations, many of which have changed government policy. It is also the single best forum we have for political interrogation, chiefly because of the peerless Jeremy Paxman. It has several of the best journalists in Britain - Paul Mason on economics, for instance - and a proud record of foreign and war reporting. No other show answers as elegantly to Lord Reith's founding mission for the BBC: to inform, educate, and entertain.
Must we abandon this much-garlanded tradition because of two recent crimes? This may not be the worst crisis in the BBC's history, but whatever it is, killing Newsnight would make things worse.
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