Can Newsnight ever recover from its recent scandals

BBC. Three letters that stand for so much more than British Broadcasting Corporation.

BBC. Three letters that stand for so much more than British Broadcasting Corporation. Three letters that people associate with fairness, impartiality and the highest quality of journalistic broadcasting. That is until the past few weeks. As the Jimmy Savile scandal hit the headlines, the questions began. How was this allowed to happen in the BBC of all places?

Scandal quickly became the order of the month, as the beeb’s beloved current affairs show Newsnight escalated the scale of crisis within the public service broadcaster. Firstly, it came to light on 22nd October 2012 that a 2011 Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile was suspended, despite taping witnesses who named the late TV star as one of their abusers. Less than two weeks later, Newsnight aired a statement from Steve Messham, who claimed to have been abused by a leading 1980s Conservative politician. Lord McAlpine wasn’t identified by Newsnight as the politician, but the Twittersphere spun and defamed the Tory peer. Messham later retracted his claim, saying he was mistaken.

Newsnight is in dire straights. The Savile scandal forced editor Peter Rippon to step aside, after the Panorama investigation showed he was the one to pull the plug on the Newsnight investigation. The Director-General George Entwhistle resigned on 10th November after increasing pressure from the scandals. In his statement, he said: “The Director-General is also the Editor-in-Chief and ultimately responsible for all content; and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2nd November; I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of Director-General.”

The next few weeks will be huge for the future of Newsnight and BBC journalism. In an email to BBC staff, Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten said: “We will decide what immediate action needs to be taken once Ken MacQuarrie’s investigation into last week’s Newsnight is complete. We will then look at what else needs to happen once the two independent inquiries have reported.”

He also told the Andrew Marr show that a “thorough, radical, structural overhaul” is needed after the resignation of Entwhistle and the Newsnight saga. With all this in mind, the biggest question is: ‘Is there a future for Newsnight?’

It seems unlikely. It would take a very brave decision from the BBC Trust and the next Director-General to keep the show running and stop it going the way of The News of the World.

However, there is still plenty that is great about Newsnight.

The way Newsnight has presented their own scandals has shown the class the show has. Issuing apologies right at the top of the show and ripping themselves to shreds shows true journalistic class. Yes, they have made some shocking decisions in recent weeks, but it is their own response to the show that suggests that Newsnight should have a future. Eddie Mair’s presenting on 9th November sums the situation up perfectly. During technical difficulties with the sound on an interview, Mair said “Oh great, the sound isn’t working, the journalism isn’t working”. He signed off Friday’s show with the line: “see you on Monday, probably”.

Presentation is Newsnight’s greatest strength, and in Jeremy Paxman, they have one of the best journalists of his generation. His bulldog-ish nature during interviews means he suffers no fools. His abrasive nature has made many a politician squirm and made the potentially less interesting news items accessible to a wider audience. Paxman embodies the Reithian principles, inform, educate and entertain, even 90 years on from the BBC’s formation. It would be a travesty for the British public not to get their dose of Paxman on the BBC.

Even with the scandalous months of October and November, it is hard to deny that Newsnight won’t be sorely missed on the British media landscape. Having run for over 30 years, it is difficult to think of a world where Newsnight isn’t the premium current affairs show on British television.