Politics and current affairs can chiefly be covered in two ways. One is to retreat to the Westminster village and reduce politics to a soap opera, a story of who’s up and who’s down, divorced from the broader social context. There is no shortage of this approach in contemporary political reporting.
The other is to give a platform to underrepresented voices, to examine the impact on communities of political decisions made at a national and local level, and to challenge the injustices which politics is – at least theoretically – supposed to correct. One of the very few serious examples of such coverage is Victoria Derbyshire’s daily show on BBC Two. But yesterday, it was announced that the programme is to be axed.
This is the show that helped puncture the silence around male rape and sexual abuse through its interviews with footballers who had been sexually abused by the former Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra coach Barry Bennell, along with other interviews with male survivors. It is the show which exposed the plight of Barnet residents languishing in cockroach-infested, damp homes: Derbyshire’s forensic questioning of former councillor Brian Coleman, revealing his astonishing lack of empathy, went viral. What other show would dedicate so much time to interrogating failings in the children’s care system, and its failure to support vulnerable young people who had suffered trauma?
The BBC has long had failings in its general news coverage, favouring establishment voices and arguments in favour of the status quo. But what’s so unique about Derbyshire’s show is that it gives airtime to voices that are otherwise all too easily ignored: like Edith Monk, a 32-year-old accountant with multiple sclerosis who was informed by her council that she could no longer have a carer because of a shortage.
It has never been afraid of challenging the powerful, either: for example, after a ministerial inquiry cleared the former Tory cabinet minister Alun Cairns of misconduct about whether he knew of the “sabotage” of a rape trial by his former adviser, the show passed a megaphone to the victim who denounced the verdict as a “sham”. From racism in sport to the crisis in social housing, no other current affairs show has the same breadth or determination to expose injustice. Its multiple awards – including from Bafta – were thoroughly deserved.
When dealing with difficult subjects or interviewing those who have suffered grave injustices, she resists any temptation towards sensationalism
The show is also remarkable in other ways. In a male-dominated industry, it’s run by women. The BBC’s audience has become less and less representative – the average age of a viewer is over 60 – but, as Derbyshire tweeted this week, she has attracted a “working class, young, diverse audience that BBC radio & TV news progs just don’t reach”.
Derbyshire herself is a unique presence on our screens: tough – having been on the receiving end of her interviewing, I can testify to this – but full of humanity and sensitivity. When dealing with difficult subjects or interviewing those who have suffered gravely, she resists any temptation towards sensationalism, letting the stories speak for themselves. She only discovered that her programme had been dropped when she read about it in the Times – callous behaviour by the corporation.
This cancellation comes at a particularly troubling time. Robert Peston has claimed that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings intend to have a decisive say in the appointment of the BBC’s new director general. In a country where the rightwing media already dominates, the corporation risks becoming an outright state broadcaster. With Johnson’s government facing so little in the way of checks and balances, one of the few shows determined to reveal uncomfortable truths about modern Britain is to be axed.
A petition has been launched to save the show, and it’s worth signing. Rather than being cancelled, such a vital show deserves a more prominent slot. If the decision is not reversed, important issues will be even more neglected, marginalised voices will get even less attention and the powerful will receive even less scrutiny.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist