Paul Mason: A good journalist stifled by BBC bosses
The success of Channel 4 News in replacing Newsnight as the preeminent current affairs programme on British television is one of those events that fascinates journalists but leaves the public cold. In that unquantifiable manner which cannot just be measured in ratings, it has become the "must-see" show for "opinion formers" — if you will forgive the horrendous jargon.
As for Newsnight, it has gone outside the BBC and appointed Ian Katz from the Guardian as its new editor. To declare an interest, I know and like him. Maybe he can turn the show round. But as things stand, Newsnight's best journalists are walking out of its understaffed newsroom. The programme is glum and timid, racked by scandal and self-doubt.
Journalists like nothing better than writing about each other. It is good manners and a good discipline to wonder why anyone else should care. On the face it, no one should bother about television's pecking order. As long as there is one good current affairs show, why does it matter if it is on Channel 4 or the BBC? But the reasons Newsnight's journalists are leaving are not as parochial as they seem. They tell us how hard it will be not just for the BBC, but the civil service and judiciary as well, to maintain the "impartial" traditions of the 20th century in the new world.
Paul Mason, Newsnight's economics editor, is a furrow-browed theorist from the Marxisant Left. His off-air politics led to the Telegraph running a stupid campaign which claimed he was living proof of the BBC's left-wing bias. The Telegraph was wrong on every available point. BBC bias, when it manifests itself, isn't openly left-wing, but a cowardly strain of liberalism that operates by rigging debates in the dark rather than declaring itself honestly. More seriously, the Telegraph failed to understand that outsiders from the Right or the Left often make the most perceptive journalists. Because they do not share the illusions of the mainstream, they look for its weaknesses and its double standards. Mason's reports for Newsnight on the crushing of southern Europe stood out precisely because he was left-wing and had no time for the EU platitudes too many from the BBC swallowed without complaint. The only other British reporter who was as angered by the needless creation of a great depression and as worried by the possible consequences was the right-wing Ambrose Evans-Pritchard — who writes for the Telegraph, funnily enough.