Sam Leith Sam Leith

Newsnight’s fate is a bad omen for the BBC

Newsnight host Kirsty Wark, who is leaving the show after the next election (Credit: Getty images)

Newsnight, we learned last week, is losing ten minutes off its running time, more than half its staff including its entire reporting team and is dropping its investigative films in favour of cheap ‘n’ easy studio-based debates.   

The BBC’s news supremo Deborah Turness calls it ‘an important BBC brand’, but said ‘we’ve made the decision to reformat Newsnight as a 30-minute late-night news-making debate, discussion and interview programme’. She hasn’t quite taken the old captive bolt gun to it yet, then, but this sacred cow is definitely mooing anxiously as it makes its way down the slaughterhouse gangplank.  

Newsnight has gone from being a must-watch to being the most missable programme on television

I hate to say it, but: fair enough. It’s not advancing age, or not just advancing age, that means that I almost always feel like taking to my bed around the time of Newsnight’s 10.30pm kick-off. I expect you do too. Once, quite the opposite applied. You positively perked up at the portentous opening of the Newsnight theme, rather as Pavlov’s pooches might have done on hearing the bell for din-dins. The prospect of Paxman, and, later, Maitlis, was Pedigree Chum to the newshound. No longer. Over the last couple of decades it has gone from being a must-watch to being the most missable programme on television.  

The Today programme, Newsnight’s Radio Four counterpart, was the other must-catch piece of broadcast news programming. Its most recent heyday, too, ran from the late eighties to the middle noughties. Between them, they bookended the day. Newsnight would provide serious and lively and very timely analysis of the day’s big breaking stories, made extra watchable by the live evisceration of some hapless cabinet minister or other (which interview would itself often produce a fresh news line). First thing the following day, Today would unpack the stories that were leading that morning’s papers, spackle them with the blood of yet another senior politician, and the whole glorious cycle would continue. 

You couldn’t really consider yourself up to date if you hadn’t caught both.

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