Newsnight: missing the point

Hmmm… In last Sunday’s Observer I had some critical things to say about Newsnight‘s abysmal failure to help viewers understand the #ukriots. Now Helen Boaden, who is Officer Commanding all BBC journalism, has a sideswipe at us in a blog post entitled, bizarrely, “Newsnight: The facts”.

But it’s also been an especially strong summer for Newsnight though by some of the recent comment in the newspapers, you would never know that. A wholly inaccurate and unfair narrative is emerging about Newsnight allegedly “losing its way”.

Let’s look at the facts about Newsnight. Over the summer, 13 editions have attracted over a million viewers on average as people have sought out an intelligent, lateral take on the news of the day. In the last two months, 11 million people have watched Newsnight – that’s one and a half million more than for the same period last year.

Those strong audiences are not a surprise. Time and again, Newsnight‘s discussions have set the agenda and made compelling television: Steve Coogan on phone hacking; Harman v Gove on the cause of the riots; Sir Hugh Orde on political interference in policing; David Starkey on race and culture.

Newsnight‘s sharp debates, witty insights and testing interviews may challenge or infuriate. But they rarely bore.

One wonders if Ms Boaden has actually watched some of the stuff she praises. For example, Harman vs Gove was an infuriating, idiotic travesty in which two front bench grotesques parroted their respective party lines. And as for Starkey…

Boaden gives the game away, of course, by proudly boasting that Newsnight‘s “sharp debates” may “challenge or infuriate” but “rarely bore”. First of all, it’s not true that they don’t bore: au contraire, many of the discussions staged on the programme are tediously predictable. But the really important point is that challenging and infuriating has nothing to do with enlightenment. It does, however, have something to do with making sure that audience figures are up.