Can Newsnight’s new chief, Esme Wren, bring in Westminster’s big beasts to the BBC Two flagship? Tara Conlan reports
Speculation that BBC Two’s Newsnight might be axed was firmly squashed in February, when Sky News head of politics, business and specialist journalism, Esme Wren, was appointed editor of the flagship show.
Doubts about its future had re-emerged last autumn with the introduction of Nick Ferrari and Emma Barnett’s ITV series, After the News, and the announcement that Newsnight editor Ian Katz was leaving for Channel 4 to become its director of programmes.
Despite BBC News cutbacks, insiders say that the programme’s survival was never in doubt – and the appointment of Wren (a former Newsnight staffer) indicates how robustly the corporation supports the show.
"She understands the political landscape and is a great operator”
She started her career in television journalism on Newsnight in 1999 as a producer, before moving to Sky News, in 2005, as deputy executive editor of The Sky Report, with Julie Etchingham.
Her former boss, ex-Newsnight editor Peter Barron says: “It seems to me to make perfect sense that she’s come back [to Newsnight] as editor and has collected the right kind of experience along the way. I remember her as an excellent producer, and a very good political producer, in particular."
“Her move is a good appointment; she has done a great job at Sky. She understands the political landscape and is a great operator.”
During her time at Sky, points out presenter and editor-at-large Adam Boulton, she was promoted to run the whole political operation, and played a central role in the televised election debates. “She arrived as a producer. I first worked with her, I think, during Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign,” Boulton recalls. “It was immediately apparent that she knew her way round this type of journalism.”
He argues that, in a world where “politicians have become more inclined to play favourites in terms of access”, her experience will be key at Newsnight. “She has fought those battles very successfully” in situations such as the EU referendum.
During his Newsnight reign, Ian Katz was lauded and criticised in equal measure for garnering publicity by introducing fun items. These included the unlikely sight of Kirsty Wark dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 2013.
While Jeremy Paxman left on Katz’s watch, Emily Maitlis has become renowned for obtaining scoops and her widely praised coverage of US politics. Recently, she landed the first UK interview with former FBI director James Comey.
Her interviewing style may differ from Paxman’s, but her grilling of Theresa May over the Grenfell Fire (nominated for an RTS Television Journalism Award) showed her effectiveness. With so much politics to cover (not least, Brexit), and social media and rival news sites competing for viewers’ attention, Newsnight’s job has become much more complex. And, while Tom Bradby’s ITV series The Agenda is unlikely to return, After the News is expected back on screens this year.
Some commentators claim that Newsnight finds it hard these days to get interviews with the political heavyweights. Wren’s dealings with No 10 and her extensive political contacts apparently put her ahead of other outstanding candidates for the job.
Boulton comments: “Because Esme has worked on Newsnight, she knows the programme very well. I think she’s well placed to innovate and reform, but in a sensible way, and not just as a new broom.” Her work ethic and drive were apparent from the outset, say former colleagues.
Inevitably, as a public service broadcaster, the BBC comes in for more scrutiny than its commercial rivals
She attended Portsmouth Grammar School and studied politics at Bristol University; and was a Fulbright scholar, reading political science at the University of California. Her entry to television in 1999 came after she studied broadcast journalism at City University.
Boulton notes that, when she joined Sky, she was selected for a fast-track talent scheme, adding: “What she has developed at Sky News is the more managerial side of her career. In recent years, it is, increasingly, one of the ways journalism has been evolving. You have to manage up as well as down.”
That she is used to dealing with obstruction from the political parties’ machines will stand Newsnight in good stead. Inevitably, as a public service broadcaster, the BBC comes in for more scrutiny than its commercial rivals.
Another former colleague says that, although she has great contacts, she “keeps her distance from politicians”. Any spare time she has is spent on outdoor pursuits, such as cycling, running and surfing with her family, and walking her dog. She is a mother of two daughters.
Wren’s skill as a producer was much in evidence at last year’s RTS Cambridge Convention. She masterminded the hypothetical scenario in which news chiefs had to react to breaking news of a terrorist siege at a London restaurant.
Among her achievements at Sky, Wren is credited with enabling more women to cover politics. Anushka Asthana, now the Guardian’s joint political editor, was hired by Wren as a political correspondent.
“I was a mum when I joined Sky News and then fell pregnant again. Esme was hugely supportive of making sure I could both succeed in the job and maintain time for my family,” says Asthana. “She really did a lot to support myself and Sophy Ridge, hiring us both, helping us to move up the system and be really well looked after.
“She’s always on the look-out for correspondents or reporters, generally; but also women who are doing well in the lobby, to make sure we had a well-balanced team. That’s not to say she didn’t have some great blokes, too.”
Asthana adds: “Esme’s steeped in politics [and] she’s full of ideas. She is really collaborative, very supportive. You always knew she was out batting for you and would look out for you and wanted you to do well.
“It was a very collaborative atmosphere; the idea was to help each other and support each other. She did that not just with the reporters but also with the production team.”
As a previous editor of Newsnight, Barron is one of the select few who can know how Wren will be feeling and what challenges await: “For me, the big thing about Newsnight is there are, literally, no rules. You’ve got 45 minutes every night and can do with that whatever you want, as long as it’s interesting.
BBC executives want the show to feature the “must-watch” big interview of the day
“You can do one item for 45 minutes or, theoretically, 45 one-minute items. You can do whatever you want within that window every evening.
“It’s best when you go quite far away from the perceived news agenda and worst when you just do four or five items in depth that were in the main bulletin. I would encourage [her] to have fun and experiment like crazy.”
Wren’s Newsnight is still being formulated, but one source says the BBC is particularly keen about her big-hitting political journalism background. BBC executives want the show to feature the “must-watch” big interview of the day – something that it was renowned for when Jeremy Paxman was a presenter.
What is undeniable is that Esme Wren will want to put her stamp on a show that has been making headlines since it began nearly 40 years ago. Winning two awards at the recent RTS Television Journalism Awards – for Gabriel Gatehouse’s report on the Rohingya crisis and its coverage of the Grenfell fire – suggests that the programme has finally emerged from Paxman’s long shadow.
The new editor will require no reminding of the need to generate scoops and to have an effective social media strategy. In the era of fake news, well-resourced public service journalism that provides genuine analysis of complex issues has never more necessary. In this context, Newsnight’s role is more important than ever.