Monday, 12 November 2012

The slow death of Newsnight

Perhaps the most significant casualty of the current "terror" at the BBC will be Newsnight. I suspect it's for the chop (or at least a revamp that amounts to the same thing), not so much because of its misjudgement in the North Wales case last week as for its gradual decline over recent years. It was interesting to note this leak: "It is understood that Newsnight's political editor, Allegra Stratton, had such grave concerns over the allegations ... that she refused to conduct a two-way interview for the programme. Stratton, however, would not confirm this." It doesn't take a genius to work out the source of that briefing. Stratton has been one of the chief culprits in the declining integrity and competence of the programme, both in terms of her obviously partisan spin on many topics and her abuse of interviewees. While there are good journalists on board (Paul Mason, Susan Watts and Liz McKean spring to mind), and the foreign coverage is usually of a high standard, there is less sense of a cohesive house style now. It's just a bunch of people doing their own thing, with little loyalty to the Beeb or each other.

I think the change can be sourced to two pivotal events. The first was the Hutton inquiry. Newsnight was conflicted because it ran some of the original "sexed-up dossier" allegations and then had to quiz BBC management when Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke resigned. Given the anti-BBC bias elsewhere in the media, they were obliged to be rigorous and confrontational or face accusations of cowardice. It looks like many on the programme became emotionally detached from the corporation at that point. The second key event was the financial crisis, which revealed the emperor in all his stark-bollock-naked glory. Though the programme was initially good on the misbehaviour of the banks and the failures of the regulators, it soon allowed its agenda to be shifted towards the iniquities of public debt and scare stories about demographic timebombs. The tone of the programme has consequently become pessimistic and borderline misanthropic. This has been exacerbated by the Eurozone crisis over the last couple of years.

It's also noticeable how often the government chooses not to send a representative: "they were asked but declined". The significance of this is not the disregard of the government but the cynical flaunting of it by the presenters. This petulance peaked with Eddie Mair's performance on Friday. Paxman's scepticism and barely-concealed contempt for the political class is amusing in small doses, but it has become exasperating as the leitmotif of the programme. Its monotonous deployment has become anti-political, which means it ultimately provides succour to those who would dismiss democracy as inefficient. Paxman himself has become increasingly bored. He seems unable to read an autocue now without at least one stumble. He's not incapable, just visibly showing his lack of interest. From his peak, skewering Michael Howard 15 years ago, he has subsided into a Clarksonesque caricature.

Paxo's own statement points the finger at the growth of a biddable and cowardly middle management tier in the wake of Hutton, however I think this has to be seen as the perspective of someone fronting a programme that was badly burnt by that inquiry. The evolution of the BBC's dysfunctional organisation and management culture has wider roots. One aspect of the BBC's recent travails that faded into the background last week was the coincidental announcement that freelancers will now join the BBC payroll. The use of personal services companies is widespread across the professional classes (probably affecting 1.5 million workers), though we usually only hear about it in the context of BBC "talent" and civil servants, or high-profile cases such as Ken Livingstone. It's no secret that the BBC's commitment to sourcing a large part of its productions via independent providers was achieved by moving many staff off payroll to freelance status.

The internal market mechanisms introduced by John Birt in the 1990s, and the widespread use of freelancers through PSCs and agencies, seem to have led to a managerial culture at the BBC in which anything not in the contract is deemed out of scope and therefore beyond oversight. It's a common experience where services are outsourced that management becomes biased towards arse-covering rather than doing the right thing. We saw this recently in the G4S Olympics fiasco, and arguably are seeing it now in the recklessness of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. To this extent, Entwhistle's incuriosity was endemic. It can also be said that he lost his job because he proved himself poor at arse-covering (after the initial Savile furore, he could have insisted on every sex abuse story being personally cleared with him).

The Newsnight epic-fail reflects the degree to which too many players in the drama do not appear to think of themselves as BBC loyalists, with a "duty of care" to the corporation and by extension public service broadcasting. The ultimate beneficiaries of this may turn out to be the famously "incurious" Murdochs and others who wish the BBC harm. The Birt era was a conscious attempt to head off break-up and privatisation by introducing commercial rigour to a famously uncommercial organisation. In the event, costs remained high but the money was increasingly diverted into the private sector and to a burgeoning professional and managerial class. While this may have saved the BBC as a public corporation, the real cost now appears to have been a loss of esprit de corps and the sense of responsibility that extended beyond the bald requirements of a contract.

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