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“Newsnight will be back on Monday… probably…”
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby
Newsnight has been a mainstay of my adult television viewing. As a student in the early 90s, I started to find my own taste in news, rather than following the choices of my parents. I increasingly found the BBC1 evening news too light, wanting something that could offer more depth of investigation and discussion. I spent some years as a fan of the Channel 4 News, but eventually settled on Newsnight as my choice. The presenters worked well for me, particularly Jeremy Paxman, Peter Snow, and Kirsty Wark. Recent additions to the line-up are good too — Emily Maitlis is appealing, and it is good to see Eddie Mair on the television after years of listening to him on Radio 4.

But now Newsnight is in a pickle of its own making.

Last year they failed to complete and broadcast a report that was being prepared about Jimmy Savile. Maybe the editor genuinely got cold feet, or maybe he was leaned on from above to drop the story… either way, it smells bad when the BBC appears to be covering up reporting of the crimes of its former stars. Even looking generously at the situation, it appears that both the investigation and the reporters involved were mismanaged. This was recoverable — the editor might be sacked and there could be a change in BBC guidance, but there should be no lasting damage to Newsnight.

Last week, however, disaster struck in the form of what turns out to be a shoddy piece of journalism, alleging that a former senior Tory was a paedophile. In a much-trailed report, Newsnight held back from naming him, but left him as the subject of a flurry of online speculation and innuendo, fuelled by the actions of bloggers and journalists who should have known better.

It now turns out that Newsnight’s source, while a genuine victim, has been widely known to be an unreliable witness since inquiries in the late 1990s. Newsnight failed to confirm the identification that the victim made, failed to notice that details of the abuser didn’t match the alleged perpetrator, and failed to put the allegations to the person that they were alluding to.

Why did they do this? Maybe it was an overcompensation for having been accused of ignoring the Savile allegations; they desperately wanted to believe a victim and to unmask a paedophile. Or maybe they thought that bringing a historic child-abuse story back into the public eye would deflect attention away from their recent troubles.

Their shelved report into Savile was, at worst, a sin of omission, but this is much more serious. Last week’s report was shoddily researched, told lies, harmed the character of what appears to be an innocent man, and has opened up the BBC to potential legal action.

Can Newsnight recover from this? Probably, but no doubt there will be changes. Perhaps we will see an end to their investigative reporting, and instead they will concentrate on their strengths with topical discussions and interviews.

In the mean time, Eddie Mair brilliantly presented tonight’s rather down-beat edition, giving every impression that he is personally disappointed in Newsnight, and ending with the words “Newsnight will be back on Monday… probably…”
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long: there's no way back from this sort of balls up and rightly so

It has already claimed its first scalp, Entwhistle's. I doubt it will be the last, but will anything solve the underlying problem, the lack of standards and accountability that meant the Newsnight team felt they could get away with both this and the Saville coverup?

Any other channel would worry about losing viewers - hence revenue - or being fined by Ofcom, which would come straight out of their bottom line and upset the shareholders. Fining a atx-funded entity is an exercise in futility, though, and loss of viewers has no financial impact for the BBC unless they axe the series entirely. Maybe a few firings in this case will nudge the rest in the right direction for a while, but it's no long term solution.

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