The Beeb Needs its Mavericks

The BBC's fear of outsiders drives away talent and makes its news programmes timid and forgettable

Nick Cohen

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.

In a statement, Mason said he was leaving because he wanted the freedom to write books without submitting them to the BBC’s censors. I snorted when I learned that the BBC editors claimed the right not only to tell reporters what they can say on air but to vet their books too (in case, I suppose, the Telegraph or another Tory paper found signs of bias in the manuscript.)

No author with any integrity would put up with that in any age. But consider how creaking the BBC’s prohibitions now seem. We live in a time of outsiders because the internet makes everyone a journalist. All can have their say, and all do to the point of exhaustion. The BBC’s rules are relics, designed to police a tightly defined group in a culture its managers could hope to control. One reason why Channel 4 wants Mason is that he understands better than his former employers that, just as anyone can publish what they write on the web, so anyone can get a camera and produce reportage. Whether they are professional journalists is a petty detail. With YouTube and Vimeo, they don’t even need to persuade professional broadcasters to show their work, although Channel 4 clearly wants to.

Michael Crick, Newsnight‘s former political editor, could not be more different from Mason. There’s not a trace of the intellectual about him. But he too is an outsider. Crick adheres instead to the honourable belief that the job of the reporter is to create as much trouble as possible. He lives by his creed by bringing in scoop after scoop. You might have thought the BBC would have been grateful. But its managers made clear that they wanted an insider as Newsnight‘s political editor, who could ingratiate himself or herself with the powerful, and announce, “Senior sources have told me X” or “I am assured that the Prime Minister will tomorrow say Y.”

Ideally, any news organisation has insiders and outsiders. But for the BBC to undermine one of the best news reporters in Westminster and drive him into the arms of its rivals was not just idiotic, but as against the spirit of the times as its censoring of Mason.  

I want to be optimistic, and say all institutions like the BBC need to do is loosen up, get with the 21st century and welcome outsiders reporting and investigating without fear of the consequences. When good people leave, you should always wonder about  those they leave behind. In the case of the BBC, they may be journalists who like rules and find obedience to managers’ demands comforts rather than impositions. Given that the BBC dominates journalism, their servility will stifle both the corporation and British culture.

Before you get carried away with happy-clappy enthusiasm for the liberation new technology brings, consider that if everyone can be a journalist everyone can be a spy. The web is searchable and the BBC managers who worry about what their staff write when they’re off duty are not quite the little Hitlers they seem. Tweets and Facebook posts are taken down and used in evidence by the corporation’s enemies, and not just by the Telegraph but, potentially by everyone with a political or commercial interest. You can ban people from going against company policy online, as many organisations do. But what happens when someone else tweets their opinions or, soon, captures an off-the-cuff remark in a bar or at a party from a supposedly impartial journalist or judge on Google Glass and broadcasts it?

The same spirit that encourages people to break away from the old controls also encourages them to refuse to believe that a civil servant or BBC journalist or judge can leave their political prejudices at home. I can see a spiral in which British institutions become more cramped and authoritarian. Free spirits leave. The wrong people stay and grow in number, until public life becomes like Newsnight: frightened and forgettable.

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