Newsnight at 20

Saturday, January 29, 2000 by

Being only a few years older than Newsnight myself, it’s one of those programmes that seems to me to have always been there – always worth tuning in for, if only to check who’s refused to turn up. Now it has reached its 20th birthday and won an in-house, affectionate 45 minute tribute buried in the early evening schedules against Jim Davidson and Cilla.

An obsession of any long-running television programme, whether overt or implicit, is its relationship with its own history: how its past and traditions, its myths and legends are mediated by successive presenters, producers, viewers and, in a case like this, politicians. TheNewsnight we were shown here was a conflagration of a fiercely competitive quasi-institution, once peopled by macho Oxbridge types but now articulated in fond terms by all who work on it, and which has seemingly attracted devotees in both Holland and the British black rap community.

These were all marshalled into a narrative which charted the birth and development of Newsnight through a series or rather arbitrary moments, mostly involving controversy – the industrial dispute which postponed the programme’s launch, the furore when Peter Snow bravely questioned the legimitacy of Government information during the Falklands War, Snow’s doomed tussle with Arthur Scargill, and Paxman’s destruction of Michael Howard through repeating the same question 14 times. The result was a partial disjointedness which compromised what was at times a fascinating insight into running a daily current affairs programme against a backdrop of ever tighter control of news dissemination and manipulation by both Conservative and Labour Governments.

The collection of archive clips, however, gave the somewhat distorted impression the series had only ever been presented by Peter Snow in the ’80s; some input from other hosts, and indeed more from the litany of editors and producers would’ve complemented the programme immensely. The reunion of Paxman and Howard seemed dreadfully contrived; and on occasions it veered worringly close to vox pop territory with the preponderance of soundbites from Kenneth Clarke, Bernard Ingham, Kelvin McKenzie and others. The one person who’s flawed management almost killed off the news service he claimed to care so much about was conspicous by his absence – Lord Sir John Birt. Greg Dyke at least took the trouble to not only say how but why Newsnight has a long future at his BBC.

Tony Benn once wrote of Newsnight as running a “campaign against the Labour Party for years”, and of Peter Snow as “the media leader of the SDP.” It is true that the programme gave preposterous levels of support and publicity to the SDP during the ’80s, but none of this was touched upon. Another specific complaint he had was with the behaviour of Vincent Hanna,Newsnight reporter for seven years, during Benn’s campaign to win the Chesterfield by-election in 1984. We did see an example of Hanna’s meddling in the political process, this time badgering a naïve and somewhat gullible SDP candidate; but it was an acute example of contriving news rather than reporting it, and typical of the media talking to and about itself – one of the key problems of contemporary news programming in this country.

Watching this tribute afforded a useful insight into how news gathering and presentation has evolved rapidly in just two decades; one amusing section showed some of the outlandish studio sets Newsnight is often tempted to deploy to enhance (or not) the flavour of a particular story. To me, the crucial moment in the history of this kind of in-depth reporting, where ideas and arguments are allowed space to exist and be challenged, came with the Gulf War: an event which simultaneously signaled on the one hand the start of a new found rigour in the questioning of establishment figures involved in prosecuting conflict, but also an advance in technology and presentation that reduced the act of war to a parity with the video game and (in the case of Peter Snow’s gimmicks) a sandpit.

Britain’s repeated (and ongoing) interventions in Iraq, and more recently its war on Serbia, are framed in our minds by the perceptions programmes like Newsnight create and the value judgements its presenters are allowed to forward. Newsnight‘s tradition for unflinching interrogation of issues and guests is one that becomes more vital by the day, yet as this programme showed its reputation is built upon just as many misjudgements as memorable successes.


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