Me­dia Mat­ters

But the BBC would never have brought him in from the cold

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Stephen Glover

There is some­thing odd about Evan Davis jump­ing ship at BBC2’S Newsnight, sup­pos­edly Aun­tie’s num­ber-one cur­rent af­fairs pro­gramme.

He was, af­ter all, its star pre­sen­ter. He has been there for only four years, hav­ing left Ra­dio Four’s To­day pro­gramme for what was re­garded as a big­ger job. And yet now he is join­ing the same sta­tion’s PM pro­gramme, which is some­what fur­ther down the food chain than his old morn­ing-ra­dio berth.

It’s a bit like swap­ping an am­bas­sador­ship in Paris for one in Kath­mandu. Why would he do it? It ap­pears Paris is not all that it was once cracked up to be. Newsnight is a di­min­ished force. Its au­di­ence of around 500,000 is less than half of what it was 15 years ago; its rat­ings are lower than Pe­ston, Robert Pe­ston’s new ITV pol­i­tics pro­gramme, which starts ten min­utes later. Since the de­par­ture of Jeremy Pax­man, who was Davis’s pre­de­ces­sor, its author­ity has been leak­ing away. But ac­tu­ally the writ­ing was on the wall even when Paxo was around. The 37-year-old pro­gramme has re­cently ac­quired a well-re­garded ed­i­tor in Esmé Wren from Sky. Davis can’t have huge con­fi­dence that she will re­v­erse its sag­ging for­tunes.

The boxwal­lahs at the Beeb re­alise that Newsnight has lost a lot of ground. They fret about its high costs, which re­main sig­nif­i­cantly more than those of other cur­rent af­fairs pro­grammes. They wish it could at­tract more view­ers but know that, once lost, they are al­most im­pos­si­ble to lure back. And they know that even cur­rent af­fairs afi­ciona­dos no longer turn it on with much ex­pec­ta­tion. Some of them have grasped that ex­tend­ing BBC1’S Ten O’clock News by ten min­utes has de­terred some view­ers from switch­ing over to Newsnight. But they are un­able or un­will­ing to come up with any­thing bet­ter, and so it limps along in its rather un­sat­is­fac­tory way.

Since Davis was prob­a­bly its best in­ter­viewer, though not as for­mi­da­ble as Paxo, his de­par­ture won’t help. In the present cli­mate, the BBC would pre­fer to ap­point a woman to fill his shoes. The name of Emma Bar­nett, a com­bat­ive in­ter­viewer who made her name on Ra­dio Five, is some­times men­tioned. For the mo­ment, vet­eran Newsnight pre­sen­ters Emily Maitlis and Kirsty Wark will have to sup­ply cover for Davis, though both women covet the soon-tobe-va­cant seat on BBC1’S Ques­tion Time.

That pro­gramme also has prob­lems, though very dif­fer­ent. In re­cent years it has be­come the Colos­seum of cur­rent af­fairs. David Dim­bleby has in­dulged the mob with de­tached amuse­ment as mem­bers of the au­di­ence (not in­fre­quently po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists with axes to grind) tear into mem­bers of the panel, who in turn poke their fin­gers into one an­other’s eyes. Whereas Ra­dio Four’s Any Ques­tions (in­tro­duced by the younger Dim­bleby, Jonathan) re­mains in­for­ma­tive and well-man­nered, Ques­tion Time has de­gen­er­ated into a fear­some bear pit. Tony Hall, the BBC Di­rec­tor-gen­eral, is said to be de­ter­mined to ap­point a woman, and Wark and Maitlis are the front-run­ners, though Bar­nett is again men­tioned. A steely woman might be able to civilise it; the trou­ble is that the Beeb has fos­tered the bait­ing in the hope of at­tract­ing more view­ers, and may be re­luc­tant to clean up its act.

With its two lead­ing cur­rent af­fairs pro­grammes un­com­fort­ably close to death row, Aun­tie has a prob­lem. Ide­ally, both should be swept away and re­placed by some­thing else, but that is con­sid­ered too risky a strat­egy. Newsnight might be partly res­cued, if only it could dis­cover a new heavy­weight pre­sen­ter. Iron­i­cally, one has been avail­able for years, but was shunted to the lit­tle watched, though usu­ally in­struc­tive, Daily Pol­i­tics and Sun­day Pol­i­tics (the for­mer has just been re­branded Pol­i­tics Live and the lat­ter cashiered) as well as the more knock­about This Week. His name is An­drew Neil.

At 69, Neil is now too old to be dusted off and in­stalled at Newsnight. In any case, I’m sure he wouldn’t want the job. But when the his­tory of the BBC’S cur­rent af­fairs cov­er­age of the past 20 years comes to be writ­ten, fair-minded souls will have to con­clude that he was the BBC’S great missed op­por­tu­nity. He is au­thor­i­ta­tive and bet­ter in­formed about pol­i­tics than any other pre­sen­ter I can think of. He can also skewer an in­ter­vie­wee without bang­ing him over the head with a trun­cheon in the man­ner of Paxo.

Why, then, has the Cor­po­ra­tion not made bet­ter use of him? Be­cause he once worked for Rupert Mur­doch and is be­lieved to be Right-wing. It doesn’t mat­ter that his po­lit­i­cal views sel­dom ob­trude – and cer­tainly much less of­ten than many Left-wing pre­sen­ters. Aun­tie holds that, whereas it is pos­si­ble for a Leftie jour­nal­ist to sup­press his or her views, a Right-wing hack is con­sti­tu­tion­ally in­ca­pable of do­ing so.

Be­ing an old­ish, Rightie, white male, An­drew Neil is ev­ery­thing the modern BBC does not cher­ish. He just hap­pens to be the best.

‘Well, that’s put a damp­ener on things – he says it’s NOT fancy dress’

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