Monday, August 22, 2011

How the BBC's Newsnight can recover

There's a useful debate over at The Observer on "Has Newsnight lost its way?" As anyone who's followed my tweets over the last year can tell, I'm pretty much with John Naughton's views. There are some good comments there too.

The guests are drawn from a narrow pool, often lacking the intellectual heft that a serious-minded analysis requires. Moreover, the discussions often seemed designed to generate heat rather than light, and they are far too short to allow proper elaboration and critical engagement. Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman's interviews have become shallow lazy exercises in attention-seeking rudeness rather than the razor-sharp dissections they should be.

More broadly, this comment from Naughton is particularly telling:
"What was most striking about Newsnight's attempts to cover the recent unrest was the absence of any sign of intellectual curiosity."

Rather than dwell on the negatives though, I'd like to summarize my view of how Newsnight can recover:

1. Newsnight needs to sharpen its focus on what gets lost in the hubbub of 24 hour news. This means putting events into social and historical contexts, and worrying away at the kinds of questions that Naughton notes are missing: the hows, the whys, the shoulds. It means forensic analysis and not accepting simplistic answers.

2. The presenters and reporters need to be given time to do their jobs. Maitlis, Esler, Mason, Urban, and Watts are all good journalists. They are being let down by an agenda that is about grabbing attention rather than pursuing understanding. They need more time and a clearer mission.

3. Interviews need to be more subtle. The old-fashioned bombastic interviewing style of Paxman and Wark has had its day. It's time for careful questioning rather than trying to provoke gaffes.

4. The excellent Max Atkinson has noted a number of production mistakes that need to be stamped on. Examples include distracting graphics, silent speeches, and patchwork formats.

5. More intellectuals should be invited on, and they need to be given time to develop their views and to engage directly with each other. Lack of proper time for these discussions and too much interruption lead to superficial analysis.

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