Has Newsnight had its day?

Ben Dowell wonders if 38 years after the BBC2 institution was launched, whether the programme still has what it takes to command the news agenda

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05:  Emily Maitlis addresses students at the Cambridge Union Society on October 5, 2015 in Cambridge, England.  (Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)

Newsnight, the venerable BBC news institution that has aired on BBC2 since 1980 has been taking quite a few knocks of late. Its audience is in the doldrums, it has now lost its lead presenter in Evan Davis and is losing policy editor Chris Cook. There are whispers going around Broadcasting House that it might be time for change.

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It seems to attract more than its share of flak these days. Whether it’s for wacky stunts (getting a live cow in the studio or having Kirsty Wark dancing to Thriller) or more serious issues, like the recent decision to profile supporters of far-right activist Tommy Robinson, prompting the BBC to respond.

But for many the show never really recovered from the decision in 2011 to drop an investigation into Jimmy Savile.

And Newsnight is not a cheap show- £7m a year according to some estimates – attracting an audience of around 500,000 a night.

The question is, could that money be better spent elsewhere?

Aside from the high-profile slips, it doesn’t seem to attract many big name interviews and for many it’s on so late and is too much of an afterthought on the news agenda. Conceived in the days before 24-hour news when there was a real need for late night reflection, it seems to now appeal to only the most ardent news junkie.

And according to well-placed sources, the question on the lips of people following the saga of who will replace Evan Davis as lead presenter is this: yes, it’s a big job still, but will the show still be there in a year’s time?

I hear increasing chatter and gossip about it getting the chop. However, other BBC sources point to the problem of getting rid of such a flagship show and the message this would send out to the political class in Westminster who are ultimately responsible for the BBC’s welfare in the form of its ten-year charter. They believe axing Newsnight is even less likely with the BBC run by Tony Hall, a former director of BBC News and a news man to his boots.

The BBC is remaining tight-lipped on who will replace Davis when I ask. But with all the signs that its future is in question it certainly needs at least a refresh in my view.

In this week’s Radio Times John Morrison the editor between 1987 and 1990 and the man who hired Jeremy Paxman bemoans the treatment of the show by the BBC boss class.

“It trundles on but with its cash steadily slashed,” he writes. “In real terms the budget is now well under half what it was 30 years ago. The plan seems to be: starve Newsnight of resources and eventually it will just fade away.”

But he also thinks it still has a future, suggesting many things that would help the show recover.

“First, stop obsessing about the gender of the new lead presenter, he writes. “Newsnight is bigger than its presenters. Newsnight made Jeremy Paxman, not the other way round. You could clone the best bits of Kirsty [Wark], Emily [Maitlis] or Julie [Etchingham] into one uber presenter and on its own it wouldn’t be enough.

“Two, appoint a single editor of the Ten and Newsnight. These two keys bits of BBC News should stop competing and start collaborating.

“Third. Cut Newsnight’s running time from 45 to 30 minutes but maintain its budget.

“Fourth, seriously beef up the interview booking desk to deliver tomorrow’s newsmakers tonight. Give Today a run for its money.

“Also: drop the cheapo cut-downs of other programmes’ commissions – instead get Panorama to produce short original Newsnight investigations. And each night ring-fence space to do a really thorough/witty tomorrow’s-newspaper-preview.”

Morrison is a wise head who is loyal to the programme. He doesn’t want it to close. But he’s right to say that if it doesn’t then it may well be goodnight Newsnight.

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For me that may not be a bad thing if the BBC can replace it with something better and fresher.