Newsnight and the Paxman-shaped hole

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Grovelling, Trial-by-Twitter and the Paxman-shaped hole in Newsnight’s Child Abuse Omni-shambles

Photo // englishpen

As viewers tuned in on Friday to watch Newsnight’s rudderless ship charter Twitter’s choppy seas, there was a noticeable absence on their television screens – Jeremy Paxman, British TV’s moralizing juggernaut, was nowhere to be seen.

It was, of course, one of the most difficult episodes the flagship investigative programme has ever had to air – a thirty minute long apology for a series of catastrophic gaffes, oversights and fundamental journalistic errors in last week’s episode, which had unwittingly triggered a “witch hunt”, as David Cameron put it, against any Tory MP vaguely suspected of being a paedophile.

The immensely difficult task of being the public face of this Omni-shambles was left not to Paxman but to Eddie Mair – perhaps better known for his work on Radio 4 people. Mair effortlessly carried the show with a mixture of wry humour, confidence and, when he wasn’t taking a playful swipe at his own organisation, a stiff upper lip. Twitter’s most vociferous armchair warriors have since dubbed him one of Britain’s best broadcasters in work today, and they may be right.

But a few dissenting voices on the social networking site had another bone to pick about the show last night. Where was the BBC’s interrogator-in-chief among all this chaos? Why did senior producers pick Mair, indeed anyone other than Newsnight’s most famous presenter, to take on the poisoned chalice of an episode devoted entirely to grovelling?

Piers Morgan, naturally, was among them. He asked: “Jeremy Paxman gone MIA again tonight, as his show melts down before our very eyes? Wouldn’t want him in the trenches, would you? #Newsnight

Whatever your thoughts are on Piers Morgan, beneath the sneering contempt so typical of his online persona, there is an interesting question to be asked: Is Paxman the Rottweiler too aloof from his own news programme to lend it any credibility when the proverbial hits the fan?

This aloofness has shown itself time and time again, and his biting ripostes against his own production team have made him something of a Youtube sensation. One recalls Paxman’s resistance against the idea to have him do a weather report some years ago and, more recently, an experiment on Newsnight involving frozen water which went terribly wrong on air (“This is a complete shambles”, Paxman had barked at the hapless junior producer wobbling across the set with two unfrozen pots of water, and thus catapulted himself again into the murky world of internet fame).

The 62 year-old broadcaster is, unequivocally, one of the most talented and thorough interviewers ever to grace Britain’s television screens. But behind the irrefutable talent, the steely gaze and the unfailing scrutiny of his Newsnight sacrifices, there is a perceived smugness and contempt that has turned younger generations off him.

Interestingly, Piers Morgan took to Twitter again that evening to fume: “What Paxman would have said to a newspaper editor who committed Savile/McAlpine outrages: ‘When are you resigning?’ #Newsnight#Scandal.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by the Daily Telegraph’s Chief Reporter Gordon Rayner, who tweeted: “If Newsnight had been owned by Rupert Murdoch, it would have been shut down by now.”

The knee-jerk reaction to a claim like this is that Newsnight is about serious, quality journalism and therefore should be allowed to make the occasional glaring cock-up, indeed given more leeway than the tabloids, who are only concerned with tittle-tattle anyway.

But by tackling the North Wales child abuse story alongside the Investigative Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BOIJ), Newsnight arguably stepped onto the tabloids’ patch. After all, hasn’t outing pedos always been a special talent of the Sun and the Mirror? Newsnight was very much in tabloid territory when they decided to air this story, perhaps beneath their august institution in their eyes, and they still made a miserable hash of it.

Tabloid newspapers check their stories just as rigorously as their clean-cut Television rivals – one might go as far as to say they are even more rigorous, because the stakes are so high. Obviously there are some exceptions. But one has to ask the question: If the News of the World ran this story as Newsnight did, would it have been shut down? Or The Sun? Or the Daily Star Sunday? It is an uncomfortable one simply because it reveals our obsession in Great Britain with tearing down an institution as soon as it makes a mistake, no matter how much pleasure it brings to readers and viewers.

But Newsnight is not entirely to blame. Some crucial details were forgotten in Friday’s confusion. For example: it is unfathomable why the BOIJ, who provided the investigation for Newsnight, did not show their star witness a photograph of the alleged abuser to confirm his identity. Why, therefore, has Newsnight been hit so hard by the rest of the media for this error, when it wasn’t their own?

By the same token, it has been alleged that the police, when doing the same thing, showed the witness the wrong photograph of his tormenter during the 1990s investigation. If the incompetence surrounding this investigation stretches as far back as that, then Newsnight is simply mired in a story that already burnished beyond clarity a long time ago.

Then there is the head of the BOIJ himself, Iain Overton. BBC executives were surely itching to throttle him after he Tweeted last week “If all goes well, we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile” provoking a wild blaze of speculation about the mystery abuser’s identity online. This, regrettably, caused the name “Lord McAlpine” to trend alongside hashtags such as #newsnightscandal #peadophile and #torypedo.

It was therefore Overton’s premature tweet, not Newsnight, that lit the fuse that burned all the way to the Thatcher-era’s Lord McAlpine, who went to bed on the eve of Newsnight’s programme a reasonably respectable politician, only to wake up the next morning to find himself branded a child abuser by an angry Twitter mob without a shred of evidence.

Finally, Paul Schofied tried his hand at a spot of investigative journalism by Googling Tory paedophiles on the internet, thrusting his list of names towards a confused Prime Minister on “This Morning,” who could only fume and pontificate about viewers being vigilant in the face of one of the most infantile and pointless TV stunts of the year.

This sparks off yet another hail of questions that Twitter is surely eager to answer for us. What will happen to Newsnight? Will Iain Overton resign from the BOIJ? Indeed, will Schofield resign, as the Telegraph’s Iain Martin furiously demanded on Friday? And why on earth does David Cameron feel he has to appear on a programme like “This Morning” anyway?

Whatever the answers may be, we can be sure that they will be momentarily lost in the roar of baseless internet speculation which has publicly brought senior politicians and journalists alike to their knees. Eventually, they will come to light, but only after this pointless Twitter storm of libellous name-calling and browbeating which appoints itself the prologue and epilogue to the media’s biggest and best stories.

For all its advantages, in light of the events of this week, there is only one conclusion to be drawn about Twitter and its relationship to the media – that it brings out the worst in us, all of the smugness, vanity, viciousness and irrationality that we have tried for so many years to conceal in public life.