This Week may be bowing out, but the BBC should make as much use of Andrew Neil as it can

Sean O'Grady

So, farewell then, This Week. I’m not at all sure about the BBC’s reasoning for dropping this show, and it is said that it follows presenter Andrew Neil’s decision to “step down” from the Thursday night show.

It is a loss. It tried to inject a bit of humour into grim times. The sofa team – Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott, Liz Kendall, Alan Johnson and the like – did their best to restrain the usual partisan nonsense we’re subjected to. They put the cheeky girls on. They did quizzes. They did jokes. Best of all… they gave Andrew Neil a regular outing.

I hope we won’t be seeing less of him. He looks like he has plenty of life in him, and indeed he does. Perhaps right on cue, he was given the opportunity to conduct the only serious one-on-one interviews with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the Tory leadership, and it was enthralling and amusing to watch.

It was as if these two products of Eton and Charterhouse respectively had been summoned to their severe Presbyterian Scottish headmaster’s study to be asked what they hell they had been doing in the dorm this week. Suddenly they were deferential, though of course Johnson couldn’t take that smirk off his face and refrain from insolence. But every time he or, less often Hunt, tried to get cheeky he put them back in their box. Magisterially he ignored Johnson’s provocations, and stuck to the point and advised him to answer the question. As with all the other public outings of Johnson and Hunt, Johnson came off worse.

Though it’s probably too late to make much difference, it will at least have given Tory members and the rest of us pause for thought. It will also have reminded the BBC what an asset they have in Neil. (Personally I would have liked to have seen Emily Maitlis and Julie Etchingham interview them in the same strictly controlled environment rather than the mad house of a hustings, but there we are. Maybe – a reflection of casual sexism – Hunt and Johnson can only behave themselves when invigilated by an old bloke.)

As a heavyweight political player who can look after himself in any arena – after all he is a product of the old Fleet Street, an entire terrace of rough houses – Neil has few peers. Only David Dimbleby, now retiring, can command the same air of authority. Neil, as an old Murdoch group editor, is also someone right-wingers find impossible to accuse of leftist bias. Except, that is, for a neoliberal in America named Ben Shapiro who didn’t know who he was.

The BBC is under the kind of threat from the left and the right that it hasn’t experienced for decades.

We are well used to seeing the corporation slagged off as, in the latest Johnson jibe, the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”. Nigel Farage, of all people, condemns it for fake news and being part of some sort of establishment conspiracy to do down Brexit and the various political vehicles devoted to the cult of Nigel. When George Osborne tried to turn it into an arm of the benefits system by making it pay for pensioners’ TV licences, he too knowingly shoved a Tory time bomb under the BBC’s public support.

Today, as we witnessed in the furore over the BBC’s Panorama documentary on Labour’s antisemitism problem, they are joined by a mirror-image attack for the left. They, too, see the BBC as part of an establishment, mainstream media conspiracy – in their case one to thwart the Jeremy Corbyn project. The likes of Andrew Adonis fulminate at the very mention of the BBC because of its supposedly blatant pro-Brexit bias. Lord Adonis says Nigel Farage is on far too often; Farage says he is not on often enough.

Well, as Andrew Neil might wearily sigh, they cannot all be right. As a symbol, more of a bulwark, of the BBC’s integrity this former employee of Rupert Murdoch is the corporation’s best possible defence in troubled times.

It should have kept This Week going. And it should certainly make as much use of Andrew Neil as it can. When Brian Walden died earlier this year it reminded us all that that that tradition of the long, serious, detailed, forensic interview is almost gone. Andrew Neil is one of the few who might just be able to revive it.