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