The real problem with Newsnight

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

The Twitter feed of BBC Newsnight editor Esme Wren (remember, I read this stuff so you don’t have to) is full of plaintive whining that no cabinet minister will agree to appear on her benighted programme. The Twitter feed of her chief presenter, Emily Maitlis, is largely a screed of bile and petulance directed at the government, some of which is usefully later recycled into her opening programme monologue.

Unless Esme has had her brain scooped out with a soup spoon you might expect her to have found a connection between these two facts. Not a bit of it. ‘Cabinet minister, what is it about Newsnight, with its left-wing presenters, left-wing reporters, left-wing agenda and loathing of the government that makes you reluctant to travel across London for a late-night interview?’ It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

The BBC’s commendably swift decision to upbraid both Maitlis and Wren (rather than forcing the thousands of angry viewers to go through the labyrinthine complaints procedure) just might be a sign that even the corporation has grown tired of its overpaid, grandstanding, virtue-signalling presenters and their inability to tell the difference between fact and their own adolescent opinions, as reflected back to them via their social media groupies.

I think I detect the hands of Fran Unsworth, director of news and current affairs, and David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards, in the swiftness of the reprimand, although I cannot be certain. They are both good journalists who I know worry about the impartiality of the BBC and the distance it has moved from the core values of its benefactors, the licence fee payers. But what will come of it all, do you suppose? My guess is nothing, pretty much, in the end.

In July last year, when I appeared on the programme and was subjected to a tirade of abuse from Maitlis, the complaints piled up. The BBC complaints unit upheld the complaint in its entirety: Maitlis had been ‘sneering and bullying’ and had allowed her personal animosity to colour the interview, such as it was.

I contacted the programme’s editor after the adjudication and asked what she was going to do about it. A languid couple of weeks later she replied, saying, effectively, ‘Naff all and there’s nothing you can do about it, you bigoted whore.’

Or kinda words to that effect. To quote directly from Esme’s email: ‘In this particular case the action point was to remind the programme “the need to ensure rigorous questioning of controversial views does not lead to a perceived lack of impartiality”, which has been noted.’

So just to note it, then. But she didn’t even note it, because Maitlis was quickly back to her same old schtick. Much though she irritates me, the presenter is far from the only one to blame. She may not even be the main person to blame. Esme Wren, as editor, is perhaps more responsible for having let that opening look-at-me-folks monologue go through without alteration, which is sackable in itself and even more so given the previous warning.

But even she is not wholly to blame. When I emerged from that Newsnight interview last summer (somewhat unwell, having just thrown up in the green room as a consequence of food poisoning), some Newsnight lackey told me that the reason Maitlis had been so ferocious (and indeed slanderous) was because there had been grave objections from within the Newsnight team about having me on at all, me being a fascist and stuff. So she had attempted to compensate by not letting me say anything and not asking questions relating to the reasons I was there, i.e. Brexit. It was enough simply to howl ‘racist’, as it so often is.

And that’s the real problem: the suffocating monoculture of Newsnight, the lack of diversity of opinion — a problem for all BBC news and current affairs programmes, but Newsnight especially. There was nobody in a programme meeting to offer a counter view: ‘Oh, you know, I don’t think he’s racist at all. I think he’s right.’ Just as during the Brexit debate there was nobody to say: ‘Well, perhaps we should leave — and maybe those predictions of calamity are wide of the mark.’

And nobody to say: ‘You know, I think Dominic Cummings was justified in going to Durham and I don’t think he should be sacked.’ I will bet you a free dinner for two in Barnard Castle that nobody said that in a Newsnight meeting. Eventually you reach the point where because everybody on the programme thinks the same thing, they think it’s the truth, not opinion at all. And they are buttressed in that epic delusion by their friends, who think the same thing again and by the jabbering mania of Twitter, which they think is representative of the real world.

By the same token, there was unanimity across the BBC — not just on Newsnight — that the violent protests in the US in support of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white cop, were entirely justified, no matter how many neighbourhoods got torched, and that the policeman was a murderous racist bigot just like Trump.

In those editorial meetings at Today and the World at One and the Ten O’Clock News, I will guarantee nobody said: ‘Well, that policeman was brutal. And now he has been charged with murder, which is what’s meant to happen. Is it, then, absolutely necessary to set fire to shops, houses, cars and throw bricks through people’s windows? Shouldn’t we question the rectitude of the rioters — I mean, just a little bit?’

Not a chance. ‘We understand your desperation, your very real need to burn down your own house,’ was the subtext of every interview done on the subject. And in that approach I suspect they are misjudging the view of the American public, just as they misjudge the views of our own public. All it takes is one voice to query the leftish orthodoxy. But that one voice doesn’t exist.

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