Anthony Clavane - In the age of social media attention spans, Andrew Neil gives politicians and activists the time to expound their policies

After 16 years, Andrew Neil has quit the BBC's politics show This Week. (JPIMedia).
After 16 years, Andrew Neil has quit the BBC's politics show This Week. (JPIMedia).
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So, farewell then Andrew Neil. After 16 years, the grizzled political veteran has quit This Week – and the late-night political show has been dropped by the BBC.

To lose one grizzled political veteran may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three in the space of a few months looks like carelessness.

Along with David Dimbleby, who departed Question Time after 25 years as host, and John Humphrys, who is leaving the Today programme following a 32-year stint, Neil is the last of the big-hitting curmudgeons; men who, in their prime, were feared by the great, the good and Chris Grayling.

The Beeb has been criticised for putting this Holy Triumvirate of interrogators out to grass. Some critics have cited ageism: Dimbleby is 80, Humphrys 75 and Neil is about to turn 70. Others have banged on about sexism: all three are quite clearly of the male persuasion. The usual suspects have complained about political correctness gone mad, chiding BBC chiefs for their apparent obsession with appealing to younger, more diverse audiences.

It could just be that their time is up. A succession of grumpy old men have dominated the airwaves ever since Sir Robin Day first snapped impatiently at an unsuspecting MP. Don’t get me wrong. I have, over the years, enjoyed the eye-rolling, the constant interrupting, the pompous grandstanding. There was nothing more thrilling than Jeremy Paxman, in his pomp, neighing and snorting his way through another skewering of a smug, self-serving politician. Paxo’s relentless grilling of then-Home Secretary Michael Howard, back in 1997, remains one of TV’s best ever interviews.

But as Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff University, noted earlier this week: “There’s a real generational shift happening at the BBC... These guys have been there for decades and they’re saying, ‘It’s time for a change.’”

Still, I will miss This Week. Being a political nerd I have spent many a Thursday night, these past 16 years, watching Neil and co deliver their eccentric takes on the latest political shenanigans.

True, the light-hearted segments rarely produced a chuckle. In fact, the host’s strained banter with regular guest Michael “choo-choo” Portillo and token Lefties Diane Abbott, Alan Johnson and Liz Kendall often made me cringe. In a recent show, studio guest Bobby Gillespie’s stony silence, as the political hacks dad-danced to some novelty hit, was entirely understandable.

But I was never deceived by the “Evenin’ all!” bonhomie and avuncular levity. Neil is, perhaps, the most intimidating interviewer in broadcasting and has been rightly lauded for his meticulous preparation, encyclopaedic knowledge and sharp-witted, forensic approach to subjects many other mainstream political shows refuse to touch with a bargepole.

In the age of social media attention spans, he gives politicians and activists the time to expound their policies but is quick to expose robotic soundbites. And his opening monologues, especially the one that followed the Manchester bombing, are always eloquent.

In recent times, however, he has become too grizzled, too grumpy, too embroiled in personal feuds. Especially on Twitter – overstepping the mark by ridiculing the award-winning Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr as a “mad cat woman” and denouncing Nish Kumar’s excellent satire show The Mash Report as “self satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged leftwing propaganda”.

The biggest concern about the demise of his idiosyncratic, long-running late-night politics show is that it appears to be part of a dumbing down process. First the national edition of Sunday Politics was axed. Then came the announcement that News at Ten was to be cut by ten minutes to make way for youth programming. And now this. All, it seems, to save £80m from the budget. To be clear – as their interviewees are fond of saying – the writing is on the wall for the old guard who became too entrenched inside the Westminster bubble, too cosy with the political class, too London-centric.

And, yes, too male. Which is why I welcome the ascent of Fiona Bruce, Victoria Derbyshire and Beth Rigby. The kings of cross-examination are dead – long live the queens.