BBC’s Newsnight Plumbs New Low in Mayoral Debate

April 9, 2008

The declining fortunes of Newsnight were illustrated in an abysmally staged debate between candidates in London’s mayoral contest. The clumsy and faltering efforts of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Brian Paddick were only matched by the antiquated format of the programme, and a predictably offensive and blustering performance from Jeremy Paxman

I bought-in to Newsnight’s marketing of the debate ever since it was trailed last week. The leading candidates to become next London Mayor were to appear in a Presidential style debate, anchored by the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.

That seemed a good chance to see what early form the runners were showing. So I decided to watch, trading off the experience against the chance to watch the highlights of Chelsea against Fenerbahce. It was a bad decision.

Boris Johnson for the conservatives, and incumbent Ken Livingstone, long re-admitted into the New labour fold, are already high-profile public figures. Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems comes with an interesting and controversial reputation and many years of service in the police service.

Boris was recently acclaimed as “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, according to David Cameron, the candidate who was “twice as charismatic, and twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newsnight provided a rather jolly snap of the three candidates for the family album. [I show it above. My excuse for a possible abuse of its IP rights is that the image completely misrepresents what actually happened on the programme. It induced me to watch something completely different to the way the programme was advertised by that charming and jokey photograph.]

The format was the stilted and clumsy one of the so-called debate between the candidates for the Deputy Leader of The Labour Party last year That was when each candidate stood rather foolishly and gaukishly answering questions such as ‘if you weren’t standing, which candidate would you vote for’. It was hard to imagine Newsnight could ever do something quite as bad again.

Well, they did. Monday April 8th 2008. This time there were three candidates not six. But the cheap lecterns were brought out of storage again. The hectoring blustering style from Jeremy Paxman was if anything even more deranged. ‘You must be living in a parallel Universe if you think that people …’ [can’t remember what followed. My notes just read ‘grey, witless, dire’ and that was just the questioning].

The candidates fell into the trap of squeezing as many words as possible into each time-compressed reply. From time to time they were allowed to snarl at each other, but they didn’t try to snarl at Mr Paxman.

Mostly the statements made little sense. Among the breathless platitudes there was one almost interesting and surreal bit about bendy busses and how many people were killed by them. But that didn’t make much sense either.

Its fifteen minutes seemed to go on, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop for a very long time. But it was hard to concentrate. Boris seemed determined to avoid letting the most engaging part of his persona shine through, less his exuberant sense of fun be too closely connected with buffoonery. Ken’s drier wit was also under lock and key. Mr Paddick may have made some concession towards the existence of an audience, but if he did, I missed it.

The missing audience

That’s it! No-one seemed to be acting in a way that might engage an audience. Mr Paxman, the old warrior and professional trooper is still able to perform his roaring and ranting bit. But even he had trouble with the epilogue to camera. You can watch it again he said. Then added, as if with a glimmer or irony and self-awareness, again and again, thanks to the shiny new podcast service available from the BBC website. But that was about the only concession to the needs of an audience. All four were performing an intense tag game. Once they got into the ring, awareness of the need to win the favours of an audience out there somewhere was lost, as the combatants grunted and groaned to the final bell.

Questions we deserve

Turns out the BBC had been encouraging people to suggest questions. Not sure if that absolves anyone from the general crassness. Question Time seems able to collect enough people to ask some worthwhile questions to its panels of politicians on a weekly basis.

What did the charisma go?

Where did all that charisma go? I could only see four adrenalized alpha males in identikit dark grey Business gear engaged in mock combat. Conclusion. The format all but snuffed out any insights into the ideas or personalities of the candidates. I am as unenlightened as ever about their competences relevant to being the next London mayor.

Wish I’d watched Chelsea. Still, I can always upload it (or do I mean download it?) from the BBC website.


The image above came from the BBC website. So sue me. And I’ll make a counterclaim using the image as evidence that I had been mislead into watching a programme of such dismal format that it succeeded in sucking all the vitality out of three able people (four if you count Jeremy Paxman) and in misrepresenting them as unfit for office. Perhaps Ken, Boris, or Brian could be called as witnesses for the defence. Jeremy would presumably be a witness for the prosecution.