25 years old and still shooting from the hip

Bringing
a cow into a television studio may sound like an idea for a bumper
farmyard edition of Blue Peter. It is, in fact, a stunt that sticks out
in the mind of Newsnight editor Peter Barron, who first joined the BBC
news and current affairs programme in 1990.

It was Barron’s job, as a producer on the programme, to book the cow to illustrate a story during the BSE crisis of that year.

“I
can’t remember exactly where I got it from but there are a couple of
companies that provide livestock for television and as long as you can
provide straw, water and a safety person, they give you a cow,” says
Barron, who left Newsnight and the BBC in 1998 to return as editor in
May last year. “I think it’s part of the programme’s ethos – that we
have always been experimental and we have never been packaged or slick.”

Today,
when news and current affairs programmes have everything from video
walls to computer generated graphics to illustrate stories, it’s easy
to forget how innovative Newsnight has been, says Barron.

Former
presenter Peter Snow’s use of a sandpit in the studio to demonstrate to
viewers the events of the Afghan war in 1980 had huge impact because it
provided a level of detail that was unprecedented.

But it’s not
the stunts and gizmos it uses, but its approach to the stories of the
day that has made Newsnight distinctive, Barron believes.

“Since
Newsnight started there has been a consistent thread running through
it, rather like a stick of rock and a non-conformist tradition that has
always been with the programme,” says Barron.

George Carey, who
was editor of the programme when it launched on 30 January 1980,
allegedly told journalists they could cover any story as long as it
hadn’t been on the Nine o’ clock news beforehand.

“That’s an extreme view to take, but the programme was trying to establish itself and be different,”

says Barron.

During
the Falklands war the programme’s sceptical approach towards
information provided by the British on the developments of the war was
extremely controversial.

“That is what Newsnight is for, to probe and question,”

says
Barron. “In a democracy it is our role to hold people to account and
over the years I think Newsnight has done that very effectively.” He
believes it is the unpredictable, volatile side to the programme that
has earned it a loyal following among those who want more than
headlines and summaries.

Today Barron says he is still determined
to be distinct from other news programmes, but not for the sake of
being different. “We refuse to accept what some others will accept.
We’re always looking to hold things up to the light and look in a
different direction and that is clearly reflected in the style,” he
says. Newsnight ‘s remit from the start was to deliver a mix of news
and current affairs, a hybrid that Barron says was difficult to pull
off because it involved two distinctly different cultures working
together. Even today, he says, there are sometimes problems in “getting
it all together”.

Think
Newsnight and you probably think of Jeremy Paxman, whose combative
interviewing style has, for many, become synonymous with the programme.

It
is, perhaps, because of him that Kenneth Clark, former Conservative
cabinet minister, is quoted as saying that Newsnight is “a far bigger
risk than the Today Programme”.

The current Tory leader Michael
Howard’s encounter with Paxman in 1997 made television history when the
presenter had asked the then home secretary 14 times whether he had
threatened to overrule head of the prison service, Derek Lewis, over
the sacking of a prison governor.

The encounter was one of those
moments “when you’re sitting on your sofa and you feel the crackle of
electricity from what is going on on screen” says Barron.

Barron
questions Paxman’s claim that he continued questioning Howard because
the producer was shouting in his ear that the next item was delayed.

“I think he realised he was on to something and kept on going to everyone’s mounting amazement,” he says.

Although
the more gladiatorial approach to interviews with politicians has come
in for criticism from some quarters, not least the politicians
themselves, Barron believes that viewers appreciate it when a presenter
refuses to back down when faced with an apparently evasive politician.

“The
viewer is hugely frustrated when a question is not being answered, so
when Jeremy asks the same question 14 times it’s for a very good reason
and I think in many cases viewers are egging him on and saying ‘yes
that’s dealing with my frustration’,” he says.

But Barron is
quick to point out the strengths of the whole team – presenters Gavin
Esler and Kirsty Wark as well as a heavyweight team of specialists
including political editor Martha Kearney, diplomatic editor Mark Urban
and foreign correspondent David Sells. “All our presenters are big
characters and at the top of their profession in terms of presenting,”
he says. “Clearly Jeremy is a huge asset to the programme, but as far
as I’m concerned he’s one member of a very strong team.”

Feedback
from viewers on the programme’s coverage of the Tsunami in Asia
re-emphasised that they turn to Newsnight for deeper analysis of the
issues and reflection on the day’s events, Barron says.

“The
danger now is that news is becoming increasingly packaged. What we’re
trying to do is encourage debate, thought and reflection.”

Barron
admits that the issue of upholding BBC standards of impartiality whilst
being challenging and analytical is a “delicate one”.

“It’s news
and current affairs and we are in the business of opinionated editorial
and there are areas which are very difficult for a BBC news programme
to deal with but what we are trying to do is reflect different
opinions.”

When the BBC’s own journalism came under scrutiny
during the Hutton Inquiry of 2003, Newsnight , like the Today
Programme, was in the peculiar position of having to report on itself.

Its
science editor, Susan Watts, was called to give evidence over the
conversations she had had with David Kelly around the same time that
Today ‘s Andrew Gilligan was also talking to the weapons expert about
his concerns about the Iraq dossier.

Although Watts was mocked by
some commentators for not picking up on Kelly’s comments about the part
he thought Alastair Campbell had played in “sexing up” the dossier, she
came out of the inquiry with her reputation as a meticulous and
thorough journalist, prepared to stand up to BBC management intact.
During the inquiry she spoke out against attempts by the then director
of news Richard Sambrook to pressurise her into corroborating
Gilligan’s story.

When the editorat the time, George Entwhistle,
also refused to disclose Watts’ sources to the then director of news,
Richard Sambrook, the programme’s reputation for not bowing to
managerial pressure was reinforced.

More recently, its presenter
Kirsty Wark has come in for criticism for her closeness to Scottish
First Minister Jack McConnell after it emerged that the two families
had spent holidays together. Some BBC colleagues have defended the
presenter, claiming that “while journalists have to be accountable and
clean it would be ludicrous if close associations became the next
health and safety issue with staff filling out forms declaring whom
they lunched with. It could get to the point where we have to park our
humanity at the door.”

Barron only says: “It’s not my job to tell
people who they can and can’t know. It comes down to people’s integrity
and professionalism and being able to do your job and I’m completely
certain of that in this particular case.”

Wark declined to comment to Press Gazette .

There
is speculation over whether Newsnight will introduce interactive
technology to the programme and Barron says there may be developments
in that direction but nothing has yet been decided. “We certainly have
ambitious plans in terms of the website and there will be lots of
content in connection with the 25th anniversary.” In terms of content
he would like to extend the programme’s hard-biting analysis to the
world of business, which he believes isn’t always held as closely to
account as it could be.

Although he acknowledges the threat that
multichannel TV poses to the programme, he believes the audience it has
is “really pretty solid”. There are, he says “about 800,000 people who
will always watch Newsnight”.

But he admits that if after the
news he cannot encourage more people to stay up a bit longer, then he
will have failed. “My aim is to make must-watch television,” he says.
“I want to keep people from going to bed for an extra 50 minutes and
for them to feel that if they miss Newsnight then they haven’t got a
full picture of the issues of the day. I want to make them think again
about what has happened.”

 

Three Newsnight journalists explain what makes the programme different.

Gavin Esler, presenter

“Something all editors I’ve worked with have in common is that they
desperately want to give journalists the time and space to think
differently about stories, to look sideways and get a different
perspective. Each editor brings their own culture to the programme,
which is part of what keeps it fresh. Editors absolutely make a
difference to the programme. But contrary to what some may think there
is no Newsnight view and no BBC view – correspondents have a lot of
influence.

“The competition is not from the 10 O’ Clock News or Channel 4, but
from the viewer wanting to go to bed, so our ethos is consistently ‘how
do you capture people when they’re thinking they could do with 45 more
minutes of sleep?’

“With around 200 channels and so much news and
information, a lot of which is bad and unreliable, Newsnight ‘s selling
point is that it is trusted and reliable.

“My worst moment on Newsnight was when I was reporting on the European elections from Rome.

“The
antiquated Italian technology meant that as the presenter in London
said ‘and now over to Gavin Esler in Rome’ I was pictured scratching my
ear for a while before I could hear anything.

“The Italian
students from the audience who had been lined up to talk about the
election had been given grappa by the floor manager. By the time we
were on air they were drunk and couldn’t remember their English.

“An
amazing moment for me was when I was reporting at the end of the cold
war from the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, south west of
Alaska. The Russians were flying Bear bombers over to America and the
Americans’ F15s were flying overhead sending them back. It really was
the end of an era, the coldest of cold wars.

“My interview with
Chirac was another memorable moment. Chirac’s comment (that he was
unsure if the world was a safer place after the removal of Saddam
Hussein) was picked up by the international press including the New
York Times . It felt like we were making the news, a real privilege.”

 

Peter Horrocks, head of current affairs and Newsnight editor 1994-1997

“The highlight for me was that interview Jeremy conducted with
Michael Howard asking the same question 14 times. Jeremy created a myth
at the expense of the production team that he repeated the question
that many times because the next item was delayed, but actually the
interview was going so well that I just said keep going, keep going.
Newsnight has a deeper and more intellectual understanding of the day’s
events. It raises the audience’s understanding further with brilliant
investigation and reporting.

“The programme’s proximity to the 10 O’ Clock News poses a challenge
as it has analysed world events more effectively over recent years.
Newsnight needs to differentiate itself further from the 10 O’

Clock
News and look at the tone of its political reporting. Newsnight ‘s
style of questioning is absolutely necessary in some cases, but
shouldn’t be used for every interview, which it isn’t. It needs to vary
the style so that the audience is surprised. The trick is to do it
without being off-putting and using the appropriate style and technique
for each interview.

“Some of the things that bring a smile to my
face now are the more ridiculous things that we did towards the end of
the programme, using the studio in interesting ways after 11pm. I
remember we did a piece on the game Cluedo and had someone dressed up
as Colonel Mustard. For a reason I can’t recall, we created a football
dug-out in the studio and Jeremy sat huddled in it looking particularly
uncomfortable.

“Being editor of Newsnight was exhilarating and
exhausting. You have a fantastically clever, sharp team. Anything the
world throws at you, you can throw at them. They’re the brightest
people and that makes Newsnight intellectual and challenging.”

 

Evan Davis, BBC economics editor

“I started on Newsnight as economic correspondent in 1997 under
Peter Horrocks and was promoted to economics editor before leaving the
programme in 2001 to become the BBC’s overall economics editor.

“Going from working on Newsnight to the 10 O’

Clock News is like going from making feature films to making commercials.

“Working
on Newsnight was a wonderful liberation as the programme doesn’t see
itself as simply a programme of record that has to touch every story
every day. Newsnight covers the things that matter and you could focus
on the things that were actually interesting to you and the viewer.

“At
the end of the day when the press has gone wild over something
Newsnight can say ‘hang on a minute, the truth is that it has all got a
bit carried away’, which you can’t do on news because you have to
explain what has happened. Newsnight is the original debunking
programme, but on news you have to bunk something before being able to
debunk it.

” Newsnight is also more wacky and deconstructive
compared with the traditional news package. You can afford to be a
little creative, which is reflected in the way it has partly influenced
TV news.

“I got endless ribbing on air from Jeremy for being a pointless braniac with no judgement ability at all.

Paxman
ran a campaign over quite some time – it was just television banter but
I think I gained quite a lot of street cred for it.

“When you
work on Newsnight the most common question you are asked is ‘What is
Jeremy Paxman really like?’ And the answer to that is that he is just
like he is on television.”

 

Timeline 1980-2005

30 January 1980 The
first edition of Newsnight is broadcast. The programme had been delayed
because of a disagreement between management and staff leading to
strike action. First editor is George Carey, from 1980-1981. The
original presenters are Peter Snow, David Davies, Peter Hobday and Fran
Morrison.

1981-87 As Newsnight tries
to establish itself, it has five editors during the early 1980s: Ron
Neil, 1981; David Lloyd 1982; David Dickinson, 1983; Richard Tait,
1985; John Morrison, 1987. He remains until 1990.

1989
Olenka Frenkiel appears on the programme with a chunk of the Berlin
wall after reporting on the wall’s collapse. Jeremy Paxman joins
Newsnight in the autumn of 1989.

1990
Newsnight appoints its seventh editor, Tim Gardam, who serves from
1990-1993. A cow appears on the programme as part of Newsnight ‘s
coverage of the BSE crisis.

1993-94 Kirsty Wark joins as a presenter in 1993 and a year later Peter Horrocks is appointed editor in January. He stays until 1998.

1997
THAT Michael Howard interview. Jeremy Paxman asks the then home
secretary the same question 14 times. A studio audience is introduced
as a trial but the idea is abandoned after a few months.

1998
Sian Kevill becomes the ninth editor of the programme, remaining until
2002 when she is put in charge of the BBC’s political review. She is
replaced by George Entwhistle, who stays until 2004.

2003
In January Gavin Esler, already a reporter on the programme, begins
presenting Newsnight. In the summer science correspondent Susan Watts
is called to the Hutton Inquiry after it emerges that she was also in
contact with weapons expert David Kelly and had tapes of interviews in
which he spoke of his concerns about the Iraq dossier.

2004
The programme’s 11th editor, Peter Barron, is appointed. In July
Controversial cleric Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi gives an interview in which
he claims that Islam justifies suicide bombings.

In September Newsnight shows exclusive pictures of foreign secretary Jack Straw shaking hands with President Mugabe.

Newsnight had unique access to Mr Straw during one of his most difficult weeks in office.

Political editor Martha Kearney observed him at close range over four tense days as the British hostage crisis unfolded in Iraq.

In
October, Mark E Smith of the Fall is interviewed by Gavin Esler about
the death of John Peel. Fall appeared “tired and emotional” and the
piece generated a lot of feedback.

In November French president
Jacques Chirac is interviewed by Gavin Esler at the Elysee Palace in
Paris ahead of a visit to Britain. Chirac says he is not at all sure
the world had become safer following Saddam Hussein’s removal from
power.

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