There was an odd, slightly poignant air to Newsnight on Monday.

Wrapping up a show that had covered the infected blood scandal, the call from the ICC for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a Hamas leader, and the death of Iran’s president, Kirsty Wark introduced a film by the programme’s diplomatic editor, Mark Urban.

Summing up how the world had changed since he started reporting for Newsnight more than three decades ago, the film stood as a farewell to arms for the former Army officer, now leaving the programme with many of his colleagues.

You don’t usually see reporters receiving such a send-off. It is like a supermarket asking customers to give a round of applause to Brian on fruit and veg for his sterling service. It would be nice if such things happened, but by and large, they don’t. Jobs end and people move on. Worse things happen in other workplaces.

The Herald: Scoop, starring Rufus Sewell and Gillian Anderson, was a dramatised version of the Prince Andrew interviewScoop, starring Rufus Sewell and Gillian Anderson, was a dramatised version of the Prince Andrew interview (Image: free)

It is not as if Newsnight itself is ending. As Wark said, the format is changing. Newsnight as viewers know it will end this Friday, but the programme will be back next Tuesday, half an hour long instead of 45 minutes, without the films and with a lot more chat.

Why the fuss you might wonder? What is it about these changes, and this current affairs programme, that it should prompt such media chin-stroking and navel-gazing? What is so special about Newsnight?

Now there is a question, and I’m the person about to attempt an answer. Several centuries ago Newsnight was where I served my apprenticeship in TV news. I still have boxes full of old VHS tapes to show for it. The machine to play them on long ago went to the electricals section of the local dump, but I hold on to these tapes like Miss Havisham her wedding dress, as a reminder of an extraordinary time.

I started at Newsnight in 1996. Much like now, the country had been hanging on forever for the starting gun to be fired on a general election. John Major’s administration was crumbling around him, Tony Blair was on his way. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a young political reporter was very heaven.

For a print journalist, joining Newsnight was like landing a staff job with Rolling Stone magazine in its heyday. All the cool kids worked on Newsnight. I didn’t even own a pair of jeans never mind the right trainers. If Newsnight was Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, I was Lulu.

A closer comparison might be to Stella Street, the sitcom about famous faces who lived in suburbia doing everyday things. Just as Keith Richards and Mick Jagger ran the corner shop on Stella Street, so a normal day on Newsnight would find Martha Kearney in the queue for the fax machine (ask your grandpa, kids); Gordon Brewer out on the fire escape ‘avin a fag; Fiona Bruce in a fancy frock, dashing off to some glittering occasion or other; Evan Davis trying to find the secret code for the edit room (scrawled on the door); and Krishnan Guru-Murthy kicking a ball around with a prowess that would not surface again till Strictly.

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Happy days. Newsnight did not just report the news, it made it, as when Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question a dozen times. Fast forward two decades and Emily Maitlis, former Newsnight anchor, would scoop the world with her Prince Andrew interview. That was 2019, just five years ago. How did the mighty Newsnight get to the point where it could be cut to half an hour and turned into yet another discussion show?

That is what the “new” Newsnight will be on its return. Gone will be the longer-form investigative films by which the programme had made its name since 1980. Gone will be the big name guests who only said yes to Newsnight. Gone, one fears, will be the creativity, daring, and sheer flaming cheek that made Newsnight required viewing.

It has not been must-see television for some time now. The world has moved on and news with it. When I was on Newsnight we were still using phone books and actual newspaper clippings. 

Where Newsnight once stood alone as a provider of analysis, opinions are now everywhere: 24/7 news channels, print, websites, podcasts, radio. Access what you like when you like, much of it free. No need to wait till 10.30pm on BBC2 to find out which way the wind is blowing.

For my tuppence worth, Newsnight never recovered from the 2011 decision to shelve the late Liz MacKean’s investigation exposing Jimmy Savile as a paedophile. Others, though, might point to Maitlis’s royal interview as proof the old show was still going strong for a long time yet. I doubt the BBC’s Prince Andrew interview would ever happen today, not just because Maitlis has moved on. The BBC is in a different place: weaker, pilloried by left and right alike, lacking in confidence. Overshadowing everything is the constant threat to axe the licence fee.

The Herald: The famous confrontation between Jeremy Paxman and Michael HowardThe famous confrontation between Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard (Image: free)

Investigations aside, Newsnight excelled in its attitude to journalism and analysis in particular. It invested in reporters, gave them time and space to learn their stuff, so that they could tell the difference between what mattered and what did not. So when the balloon went up, and sooner or later the balloon always goes up, there were reporters who knew what they were talking about, or had a number for someone who did.

Now everyone is an expert, everyone has a view and the means to share it with the world. There are upsides to democratising the news. Gone are the days, thank goodness, of some BBC chap or chapess delivering their opinion from on high for the masses to wonder at.

But having too much information can be as detrimental to understanding as having too little. When there are no filters, no checks and balances, anything can slip through. Before you know it fake news is flourishing and politicians are presenting news shows as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

It is nighty-night to Newsnight from me. I won’t be there to toast it on its way - too sad. But I’ll hold on to those VHS tapes for a while yet.