Newsnight's torrid few years and why Eddie Mair would be perfect replacement for Jeremy Paxman

The departure of Jeremy Paxman from Newsnight is the latest in the wake of the biggest mistake in the programme’s history – its refusal in December 2011 to air testimony from alleged victims that the late DJ Jimmy Savile had sexually abused them.

In November 2012 there was a second nightmare for Newsnight when it said a senior Tory, later identified as Lord McAlpine, was involved in child abuse. The mistake cost the BBC £185,000 in damages plus legal costs.

Paxman detailed the BBC culture which bred these twin disasters in his testimony to the Pollard Review into the Savile scandal.

He said there was a general “drawing of the horns” at the BBC after the corporation was condemned by the Hutton Report into the death of Dr David Kelly in January 2004.

And he said BBC news was “taken over” by radio people in the guise of former head of news Helen Boaden, her deputy Steve Mitchell and Newsnight editor Peter Rippon. He suggested that radio types at the Beeb have a “preoccupation with the institution” and their pensions.

Rippon is now in charge of the BBC archive. The two reporters who worked on the Savile story – Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean – have left the programme, Jones works on Panorama and MacKean for Channel 4 Dispatches. 

Paxman said he decided to leave in July last year, after Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz was announced as the new editor of the programme but before he had taken up the reins.

Another high profile departure came in August last year when economics editor Paul Mason left the programme to join Channel 4 News.

Since the arrival of Katz science editor Susan Watts and foreign reporter Tim Whewell have been made redundant. His most high profile hire has been ITV news business editor Laura Keunnsberg as chief correspondent.

Paxman was reported to be paid £800,000 a year by the BBC for his work on Newsnight and University Challenge, so his departure should free up Katz to make one or two more big hires.

The big question now is who has the gravitas, star quality, rigour and steel to step into Paxman’s shoes (see our video on Paxo's best bits below).

 

For my money Radio 4 PM presenter Eddie Mair would be a great choice.

He proved he has the steel when he grilled London Mayor Boris Johnson whilst standing in for Andrew Marr on his Sunday morning BBC One show last year.

Mair asked Johnson if he was a “nasty piece of work” and persuaded him to admit that he wanted to be prime minister when Johnson said: "If people genuinely wanted me, of course I would want to do it."

Mair proved he has the big match temparament when he stepped into the breach to present Newsnight the week after the McAlpine debacle.

And that he has Paxman’s rare ability to inject some dry wit into a serious news programme with his sign off that night: "Newsnight will be back on Monday, probably."

But Mair’s biggest triumph was, for my money, a broadcasting moment which deserves to stand up there with Paxman’s famous 1997 grilling of Michael Howard.

Unlike Paxman, Mair actually got his question answered in 2009 when he persuaded former defence minister John Hutton to admit for the first time that he had said Gordon Brown would be a “fucking disaster” as prime minister.

Over the course of a brilliant interview Mair went from this:

Mair: You are credited with saying previously that Gordon Brown would be a fucking [bleeped]disaster in the role of Prime Minister, did you say that?

Hutton: That's not my view.

To this:

Mair: My guess is you said it, you haven't denied saying it – so come on, did you say it?

Hutton: Well there's no point in my denying that I didn't have very serious concerns about Gordon…

Mair: You said it, didn't you?

Hutton: I did say it yes, let's get that over with.

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