Is the odd dash of Paxo enough for Newsnight?

By Adrian Monck 

CHANNEL 4 NEWS is staying at ITN. At least until ITV decides what it will do with its own news service.

It’s some years now since two BBC men — Jim Gray and his deputy Peter Barron — arrived at Grays Inn Road from White City. They were from Newsnight, and were given the kind of hearty welcome medieval villagers reserved for lepers and plague carriers. Between them, they were tasked with turning around a programme perceived to have ‘lost its way’.

The unpopularity lasted a while. But the changes they made and the talent they brought in were enough to convince even hardened sceptics that they knew what they were doing. Gray is still there, one of the most admired executives in the news business. Barron, equally highly regarded, is now running Newsnight.

He too joined a programme that seemed to be riding the waves rather than making them. Now Barron is in the process of redesigning Newsnight, ready to confront the world anew and relaunch from a new studio at the end of May. You can follow the progress on his blog.

I think he faces a struggle, because Newsnight has only half a face. And that half is Jeremy Paxman. Barron is Paxman’s sixth editor and Paxman was presenting when Barron joined as a trainee. Considering Newsnight’s many outstanding journalists and presenters, for the public the programme is Paxman.

Paxman took the helm at Newsnight in 1989, the same year that Jon Snow began anchoring Channel 4 News. Paxman may pass for 40-something on-screen, but he is just three years younger than Snow, who looks every one of his 58 years. Generations have grown up with these two men.

Snow is what American producers — respectfully — call an ‘air hog’. He wants to be on television all the time. He wants to report the big stories. If you’re a foreign correspondent, he wants to be there on the streets alongside you. For Channel 4 News this is great.

Paxman is different. You can’t blame a person for lacking the freakish DNA that requires constant bathing in cathode rays. Neither can you blame someone for not wanting to work until midnight for 17 years, or for negotiating their hours down and their pay up. There may be more to Paxman’s life than a studio, even a redsigned one.

But Paxman is good on Newsnight. When he’s interested he’s very good, and when he’s animated and interested he’s peerless. Except that for a nightly show occasional genius and occasional presence are not enough. And how do you rekindle a talent that its keeper seems to view with diffidence verging on contempt?

Newsnight remains a compelling proposition, but when the new studios are in place will Paxman haunt or inhabit them?

A SET of initials is stalking broadcast executives — PVT. It’s not something you can prevent by wearing elasticated socks on long-haul flights. PVT stands for public value test and it’s something that will help decide exactly what the BBC can and can’t do in the future.

Just as CJD developed from recycling dead animals into feed, PVT evolved by repeating a similar process with moribund management buzzwords. The public value test emerged from the Beeb’s own in-house unit, BBC Strategy, a sort of radiophonic workshop for corporate-speak. Tasked with torturing the concept of accountability to death, the boffins of bull invented some of the test’s most powerful jargon, terms, such as Net Public Value (NPV). They could have used More Public Value (MPV) or Sadly Under-Valued (SUV), but instead of plundering the acronyms of the car showroom, they borrowed from an equally unrelated source — business. In the commercial world, NPV stands for Net Present Value, a concept that has some genuine currency.

The consultants at Spectrum Strategy took the BBC’s jargon, and added metrics to it — which meant re-packaging familiar fare, such as viewing figures, complaints and awards, and putting it into attractive and colourful boxes. They also highlighted the need for further research, which might of course result in, erm, further consultancy. Blessed with the validation of external consultants it was becoming clear that if the BBC were to withdraw from jargon-construction it might have an adverse market impact on the newly emergent public sector media consultancy business.

Now PVT was a madness with a method. The consultants put it to work. They ‘cold tested’ it (a cold test is a test performed in the cold, scientists do it — it shows the jargon is ‘scientific’). The test was performed on CBBC. In less time than you could board up a bungalow, some pie charts, stars and block graphs appeared to demonstrate that yes, CBBC was truly a good thing. For those privileged enough to be on the inside, it must have been like seeing the first Spitfire take to the air. The jargon worked!

The Government was thrilled, too. Although PVT was a little more difficult to understand than a mortgage application, it was just as easy to sign off. They quickly saw that PVT would allow the corporation to support the independent media management consultancy sector without actually having to refer to the public.

Just as McKinsey’s seven ‘S’s resonate sibilantly in boardrooms across the globe, so too PVT is now set to transform public service at the very top. From Wood Lane to the world!

Hiding behind the twisted trinity of initials is a yet more twisted knot of issues. We hand over our hypothecated tax for public service broadcasting with no hypothecated representation, so how do we relate to the BBC? Are we subscribers, shareholders, spectators? Or just suckers?

The Government loves abstractions like PVT that take an idea such as accountability and turn it into something so arcane, complicated and remote that ordinary people can be warded off merely by incantation of the initials. But before the consultants descend to feed on PVT, here’s a simple test for the test — will it make what the BBC does any better?

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University, London.

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