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Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 12:11 GMT
Newsnight on trial

By Peter Barron
Editor, Newsnight

Jeremy Paxman
Jeremy Paxman presented Allies on Trial, broadcast on December 14th.
"Newsnight is supposed to be (the BBC's) flagship current affairs programme" howled the Sun's leader column. "Now it threatens to sink to a new low in a cheap bid for viewers".

Were we about to feature topless models? Was prize sudoku set to replace the markets?

No. The "Beeb's shame" referred to in Tuesday's The Sun Says was this week's Newsnight special, Allies on Trial. The programme would use a trial format to explore accusations that in the "war on terror" the Allies have broken international law.

"This has all the makings of a show trial" the Sun continued to say. "The outcome is a foregone conclusion - guilty as charged."

The reason for all this excitement was that we'd asked the author and commentator William Shawcross to appear on the programme as a witness for the defence. He's a robust and eloquent supporter of the allied approach in Iraq and the war on terror who's appeared on Newsnight many times. But he didn't want to take part in this programme (that's fine), he didn't like the format (that's also fine), and wanted to stop it from going ahead (hang on a minute).

I urged Mr Shawcross and the Sun to watch the programme before jumping to conclusions, but in vain. They were determined to pre-judge that we were determined to pre-judge.

Newsnight jury
The jury's "verdict" was done by show of hands
So, was the programme a show trial, a foregone conclusion? Perhaps with a hint of prejudiced anticipation themselves the BBC's Newswatch site asked me to write this piece to respond to emails of complaint which they said they'd forward to me.

In the event there was no torrent, just "one or two" and calls to the audience log making a variety of points numbered 19, which is about average.

Here's a selection.

"How can you have a debate in the form of a criminal trial for entertainment purposes?"

We didn't intend this programme as entertainment, but of course we wanted it to be interesting and arresting. The trial format is one which has been used regularly on current affairs programmes both at the BBC and elsewhere over several years. It's a good format for exploring an issue where there are polarised views as it allows for transparently even-handed presentation of the argument on both sides.

"What was the BBC doing giving airtime to a man who was a suspected terrorist? I thought this was entirely unacceptable."

Moazzam Begg who appeared as a witness on the programme was held at Guantanamo Bay, but has not been convicted of any crime related to terror. He maintains that he was a victim of illegal torture by the US, and that was one of the questions raised by the programme. Those questions, and indeed the decision to stage the trial format, were prompted by concerns raised recently by some very senior figures including the Council of Europe, the former law lord Lord Steyn, and Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson.

"Do they not realise that people's children are dying out in Iraq for a cause which this programme ripped apart?"

The war in Iraq is an issue which splits public opinion in Britain. The programme offered equal airtime to advocates and witnesses who made powerful arguments on both sides of that debate. And far from being a foregone conclusion the jury too was split in its verdict, both on the issue of torture and the prosecution of the war in Iraq. Indeed, having heard the arguments, at least two members of the jury changed their minds - in opposite directions.

"I felt that it was pure propaganda against America and Britain. This is supposed to be the flagship programme."

Have you been reading the Sun, Sir...or perhaps writing it?

Howard special 'not staged'
24 Nov 04 |  Notes
Ungallant to Galloway?
11 Jul 05 |  Notes
Allies on trial
09 Dec 05 |  Newsnight



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