Former Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz is bringing in some controversial changes to Newsnightby David Herman / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
What is going on at Newsnight? Reporters are departing and sharing their redundancy woes on Twitter. Paxman has grown a beard and looks thoroughly disaffected. Then there’s the general weirdness that pervades the programme, from Kirsty Wark dancing with zombies on the Halloween episode to Cheryl Cole’s tattoo and, of course, Russell Brand. It was striking that when Nelson Mandela died, the Ten O’Clock News special kept going on BBC1 with the News Channel taking over. Between them they provided a comprehensive coverage that Newsnight with its reliance on experts rolled out at short notice could not match.
The first flickers of trouble at Newsnight came over two years ago, when it was revealed in a damning report in The Guardian that ratings had dropped by a whopping 15 per cent in seven months with audience figures falling from 800,000 viewers per episode in 2010 to 680,000 in the summer of 2011. None of its presenters were pulling in ratings of much over 550,000, and with Paxman already in his 60s, this was a worrying prospect. The decline was first seen as part of a long-term industry trend—Newsnight was clearly failing to compete with the rolling news channels and the more serious analysis offered by the main bulletins. Who but the most dedicated news junkie would stay up for yet one more current affairs fix?
When disaster finally struck in October 2012 it was worse than anyone could have imagined. First there was the Savilegate debacle and then the false, and hugely damaging, allegations about Lord McAlpine a month later. Although more senior figures were responsible for the McAlpine fiasco, the editor, Peter Rippon, was the chief fall-guy for the initial crisis over Savile. The Pollard report concluded that there was “chaos and confusion” at the BBC over the shelved investigation into allegations that Jimmy Savile had sexually abused a number of vulnerable young girls. Newsnight‘s editor and deputy were replaced, the deputy head of news left the BBC and his boss, Helen Boaden, moved to BBC Radio.
It was clear by now that something needed to be done about Newsnight. Nobody was talking about axing it, but a fresh direction and more robust journalism was urgently required. In July 2013, the industry magazine Broadcast reported that; “The public’s trust in BBC news and current affairs plummeted after the corporation was hit by the Newsnight disasters.” It quoted a report by the BBC Trust, that because of the “editorial crises at Newsnight, audience perceptions of accuracy, trustworthiness and impartiality fell significantly.”
Enter Ian Katz, the former deputy editor of The Guardian, and now Newsnight’s apparent saviour. There are reasons why ambitious senior editors of The Guardian might leave—its circulation was (and is) in freefall having dropped from about 350,000 in May 2008 to less than 200,000. Its long-time editor, Alan Rusbridger, shows no sign of leaving. And it has become increasingly clear that the newspaper sees its future in digital, opening sites in Australia and America. Rusbridger’s successor will probably be someone who understands the world of global e-commerce and advertising—not a print journalist who was one of the first (and most able) pioneers of what is now known as the “Two Kims” culture in newspapers.
The MailOnline is the obvious example of a news brand which has aggressively embraced this editorial strategy. It recently ran an advertising campaign based around “The Kims” which featured Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, next to the ubiquitous reality star Kim Kardashian. The two Kims, the ad implied, are the two faces of the modern newspaper/news website: global news mixed with celebrity culture. While the ad perfectly sums up the “Two Kims” approach, the drift of newspapers towards mixing serious news and pop culture goes back two decades, to the 1990s, when Katz and Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, were pioneers of this more digestible journalism.
In 1990 when Katz arrived at The Guardian as a reporter the newspaper read as if it was aimed at left-wing and earnest public sector workers who worry about racism, sexism and Israel, and read Seamus Milne, Gary Younge and George Monbiot. They are the children of what George Orwell called the muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, bearded Left. But even in the heyday of its huge Society and Education sections with their massive advertising revenue, this was not a viable long-term strategy for any newspaper. The circulation was too small and with signs that the advertising base was starting to wobble, a wider readership was needed. Katz and Rusbridger saw another potential audience: media-savvy, London-based, McEwan-reading younger readers, less earnest, more interested in popular culture, who these days want to know about twerking and tweeting, focaccia and feminism.
In a fascinating profile of Alan Rusbridger for The New Yorker this October, the award-winning columnist Ken Auletta told the following story about how under his predecessor, Peter Preston, Rusbridger got the revolution going in the early 1990s;
“Rusbridger introduced a mixture of lifestyle and other topics [in the early 1990s], including a narrative of a visit to a nudist colony. He was dismissed by some as a middlebrow, but weekend circulation jumped. Preston then appointed Rusbridger to edit a new daily feature section, the G2. When Kurt Cobain died, the section ran an extensive account of his life and death. “All the graybeards came and said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘Our daughters are crying. That’s why we’re doing this.’ ”
Katz was a key figure in this editorial revolution. This is surely what made him so attractive to BBC News and Current Affairs when they were searching for Peter Rippon’s successor. “I’m incredibly excited to be joining a programme I’ve watched and loved all my adult life,” said Katz on his appointment. “I’m looking forward to working with the hugely talented team to make it once again the world’s most intelligent, sophisticated and exciting news programme.”
The BBC wanted someone to rebrand Newsnight, who could stop the slide in ratings and attract a younger, more digitally savvy audience. This appears to have been behind the items on Cheryl Cole’s tattooed bottom, Jeremy Paxman’s head-to-head with Russell Brand and Kirsty Wark’s supernatural shuffle. And, of course, Katz’s accidentally released tweet describing Labour shadow minister, Rachel Reeves, as “boring snoring” back in September. Together they were a declaration of intent. Newsnight was not going to be dull on his watch. Sure, politicians are boring. No one could pretend that Leon Brittan, Geoffrey Howe or John Major were a laugh a minute. But Katz would sweeten the pill. He would make current affairs fun.
But, the lack of headline-grabbing signings looks like a weakness. Where were the big name replacements for departing stalwarts such as the Political Editor Michael Crick and the Economics Editor Paul Mason? If Paxman seems disengaged, and he does, then who might his successor be? If Kirsty Wark’s hectoring style proves a turn-off—see her poorly reviewed interviews with Glenn Greenwald or Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary—who’s going to replace her? Mishal Husain would have been perfect, but she went to Today. Katz’s most high profile appointment to date is the BBC News’s former Chief Political Correspondent Laura Kuenssberg, who will return to the corporation in the new year from ITV.
He has also chipped away at the programme’s structure—dispensing with the post of science editor (occupied with distinction for almost two decades by the BAFTA-winning Susan Watts) and one of two dedicated foreign reporters, Tim Whewell. Is this about freshening up the show? Unlikely. One explanation could be is that it’s to save money. Cut back the team and use other BBC resources. Who needs a full-time Science Editor, when you have BBC technology correspondents such as Rory Cellan-Jones travelling the world, filing stories for radio and TV news and blogging like demons? They could surely film a quickie report for Newsnight as well? As Tim Whewell tweeted as the news of his exit became public; “Luckily, there’s lots of BBC foreign reporting out there that NN can use.”
What Newsnight desperately needs are razor-sharp presenters and reporters who can convincingly pull off the mix of stories which Katz appears to want. Let’s hope they are on his Christmas list. He clearly won’t be allowed to poach Mishal Husain, Evan Davis or Martha Kearney from BBC Radio and if Nick Robinson wants to move he would probably prefer the more high-status Today programme, compulsory listening for the nation’s political elite on their way to work.
It’s unfair to blame Katz entirely—he inherited a sinking ship but there is also a potential tension between what he is aiming for and what the programme’s core audience actually wants.
If you want to see how it should be done look at Robbie Gibb, who runs the Daily Politics/Sunday Politics empire and was Katz’s rival for the Newsnight job earlier in the year. His programmes are sharp and witty with a regular panel of informed commentators: the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh and The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt on The Sunday Politics, and Michael Portillo and Alan Johnson on This Week. Above all, there are the hard-hitting interviews with Andrew Neil, who is British TV’s biggest current affairs heavyweight. But, this isn’t about personalities, it’s about the quality of the research and the rigour of the questioning. That’s what Newsnight used to be there for. Now if you want proper studio-based news and current affairs, you will find it on TV courtesy of Gibb and Neil or on Radio 4, every weekday thanks to the editorial teams on Today, The World at One and PM.
For the past two decades assorted BBC executives have considered from time to time getting rid of Newsnight and freeing up the post-10.30pm slot to make way for long dramas, films or late-night shows which might have a different feel from the early evening blokey fare such as QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. There are no hints of the programme being axed, but Paxman’s retirement will be a key turning point. What will trouble BBC executives even more is that its credibility has not fully recovered from the crisis of 2011. Above all, the crucial question is do we really need a 40-minute late-night news programme in a different news arena? If so, what should it look like?
If Katz has a master plan he needs to act quickly and decisively. Time is running out. “Telly MUCH netter [sic] than snooooozepapers innit,” he wrote in that infamous tweet. Not on boring snoring Newsnight it’s not.