I have just spent a few moments in bed with the popular comedian Russell Brand and I have to say that I enjoyed it hugely. We did not have full penetrative sex, sadly, and when I say ‘in bed with’ I mean it sort of figuratively, or vicariously. What happened is that I watched Russell’s latest address to the world, which he delivers regularly from his bedroom — complete with those by now familiar mangled, high-camp estuarial vowels, tortuously pretentious grammar and infantile, uninformed narcissistic political opinions. Russell sits on the bed and tells us about the state of the world, man, and how it’s all, like, shit, and this stuff in Iraq well, hell, I don’t blame them, those British jihadis, because Cameron’s evil, evil, evil and life must be really horrible here if they want to up sticks and fight with Isis in a country where there are almost no decent hair-care products, so it’s all our fault or — more properly — yours.
That’s why I enjoy my mornings in bed with Russell. It’s like a condensed version of a particularly bad edition of the Guardian, filtered through the veins of an imbecile. Russell told the world not so long ago that there was no point in voting because it changes nuffink, innit. The sort of thing you hear not from the pub bore, but from the bedraggled halfwit in the corner with his half pint of Guinness, who even the pub bore finds insuperably tedious. Incoherent faux-left conspiracy theories that would have made even the late Tony Benn blush with embarrassment. Owen Jones when he was still mithering around, falling over and having tantrums, in kindergarten.
I mention Russell to you because apparently he is the future for the BBC’s most highbrow and respected current affairs television programme, Newsnight. The newish editor of Newsnight, a man called Ian Katz — who joined the programme from the Guardian (natch) — has come to the conclusion that the hard-nosed political interview is dead. Politicians are too well prepared when they turn up in the studio these days — and end up just reciting stuff from their briefing papers, so the audience learns nothing and is bored rigid. The set-piece political interview, Katz suggested in the Financial Times, was more a platform these days for egoistical presenters to flaunt their machismo. One assumes this was a parting shot at the now departed Jeremy Paxman, who was just about the only reason anyone still watched the show. It seems clear to me that Katz wanted Paxman out, thinking his approach to politics both outdated and jejune; well, he got his wish. Paxman left, along with a fairly hefty proportion of Newsnight’s already dwindling audience. Katz has presided over a 5 per cent drop in the number of people watching Newsnight — and most of those switched channels before even Paxman had left. Expect that fall to hasten, then.
In place of the combative political interview, Katz wishes for a gentler approach, which perhaps explains why Newsnight today is dominated by debates between four women who agree with each other about everything: yay, way to go. But the editor also points to an interview between Paxman and Russell Brand, a self-indulgent gibberfest of almost startling irrelevance, which has been viewed ten million times online, something Katz views with pride. That’s the way forward, then; something which engages with the public — a halfwit being lazily cross-examined by a journalist who wonders what the hell he is still doing in this place. If it’s views online you want, Ian, why not sign up Joey Essex or Simon Cowell? Or better still, just show a kitten having difficulty playing with a ball of wool and maybe falling over a bit. That’ll do it. Or you could get one of your presenters to dress up as a zombie and dance to a Michael Jackson song. Oh, you’ve already done that. Poor Kirsty Wark, poor Newsnight.
Much of what Katz says about the political interview being a sterile affair was true, to a certain degree, 15 years ago, but is arguably rather less true today. It was undoubtedly the case that under New Labour, ministers were loth to deviate from their scripts and disdained to answer questions directly, instead repeating the same old rubbish endlessly, often in a stream of weird non-sequiturs, as if they were contestants in a special version of Just A Minute for the educationally challenged. The then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was especially adept at this approach.
I was editor of the Today programme at the time, but it never occurred to me that we should cease to ask those questions, or that the politicians should not be held to account. It just meant that we required better preparation behind the scenes. And in any case, there is something revelatory in a politician who conspicuously evades the question: the audience gets what is going on and, in my experience, are glad that those questions are being asked. Today’s political climate is different and the politicians are less likely simply to stall for time — largely, one would suppose, because the atmosphere is more fraught than it was when Labour had a vast and inviolable majority. The best political interviews at the moment — especially those regarding the Scottish independence debate — can be heard on Today: Jim Naughtie’s stuff from north of the border has been admirably meticulous and even-handed, John Humphrys and Justin Webb’s interviews forensic and revelatory.
That’s what the programme is there for. It knows this. Right now, Newsnight does not. Today’s audience, by the way, has not fallen at all. It is a sad fact, Mr Katz, that whether you like it or not, and regardless of how many people agree with you on YouTube, Alastair Darling is much, much more important than Russell Brand. I suppose that’s a boring and elitist comment, but it is nonetheless true.