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Mark Oaten - newsworthy?

Peter Barron | 16:24 UK time, Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Following Tuesday's show, a number of viewers complained about our item about Mark Oaten (you can watch it here).

Newsnight logoTheir complaints split into two main areas - first that he was an unsuitable choice of guest and second that it was an inappropriate choice as lead item. Let me respond to each in turn.

When Mark Oaten resigned as a leading member of the Liberal Democrats' front bench team following a sex scandal, Newsnight - in common with most of the media - requested an interview. This would surely - by any yardstick - have constituted a newsworthy item. Until a few days previously he had been a contender to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats. At that point Mr Oaten refused all interviews. Eventually we persuaded him to talk for the first time on television about the circumstances of his resignation to Newsnight. He did not want to do a formal interview but instead suggested a film in which he would discuss these issues.

While the film was presented by Mr Oaten, most of its content was made up of interviews with Mr Oaten conducted by our producer. Mr Oaten was clearly trying to explain, although not excuse, his behaviour, but did so in response to our questioning and under our editorial control. The result was, I think, a rare and extraordinary insight into the pressures and temptations involved in political life at Westminster. I accept that many disagree, but I strongly believe it was a worthwhile and newsworthy item.

Should we have led with it? Newsnight, unlike more formal news bulletins, is a hybrid between news and current affairs. Our primary aim every day is not necessarily to reflect the biggest stories in the world that day, but to reflect, analyse and discuss a range of current issues. The function or dysfunction of the Westminster machine is clearly an issue of huge current concern.

We did not set out with a firm intention that this would be our lead item, but continued to weigh up our options in the course of the day. By late afternoon we faced the choice between the Oaten film and an analysis of the Government's latest asylum figures. In terms of exclusivity, novelty and interest we concluded that the Oaten film should go first.

I accept that the circumstances of Mr Oaten's resignation will be distasteful to many viewers, but Newsnight's aim was not to justify his actions or assist his rehabilitation - it was to try to explore what it is that has led many politicians down the years to take these kind of risks.

Comments

  • 1.
  • At 10:05 PM on 24 May 2006,
  • Nigel wrote:

It's not so much that Oaten is unpleasant, it's just that the whole thing is weird! He should really just keep his head low.

  • 2.
  • At 11:16 AM on 25 May 2006,
  • Michael wrote:

My problem with it was his argument - that he didn't really commit any error but his actions were a manifestation of a desire to quit but without the courage to back up that desire.

He makes references to the fact that it's a politician's burden to be going at 100 miles-an-hour 24 hours-a-day in the public eye. It was at this point that I ranted at the TV - and Newsnight. This is "victim-culture". Giving him the oxygen on the very media that he blames for his victimhood is pure hypocrisy on his part. It equally does a disservice to the millions who take the everyday pressures of life in their stride and just get on with life.

I would have been delighted if this piece had been interspersed with another middle-aged stressed man, struggling to pay mortgage/kids fees/residential care for elderly parents/etc. still getting up every morning and going to work because people depended on him to do so.

Mark Oaten's problems/issues are his and he may need a bit more distance from them before he gets to analyse them more maturely. The error was his in thinking that he has got the full picture on his circumstances so soon after the event and also the error was with Newsnight in not telling him to get a bit of perspective before going to the nation and pleading his case.

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