Is the yah-boo Paxman style a thing of the past?

In a gentler political age, one celebrated face may not fit
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The Independent Online

They are the same noises this time as every time. If David Cameron wins the Tory leadership on Tuesday, he is seeking a less adversarial style of politics, he says. The yah-boo is so yesterday. And not just at Prime Minister's Questions. Cameron also wants to bring a more consensual mood into the television studios. He is sick of the attitude of the BBC's interrogator-in-chief, Jeremy Paxman.

"You come in, sit someone down and treat them like they are some cross between a fake or a hypocrite," Cameron told Paxman a couple of weeks ago. "It does your profession no favours at all and it's no good for political discourse."

Paxman has heard all this before. Earlier this year, he was described as a "west London wanker" by a "source close" to the Health Secretary, John Reid, following a bruising encounter between the two men. He's faced doubts from faint hearts within the BBC and brickbats from the TV regulators.

Nothing seems to have fazed him. But there are those in the Westminster village who are asking whether Paxman's much-imitated shtick is becoming dated. Whereas his style buried forever the age of the deferential interview, there now seems to be a feeling that his matador encounters produce too much heat and not enough light. Twenty years from now, will we look back at tapes of his interviews and cringe?

In any event, some people think his best days are behind him. This feeling has been compounded by his recent disobliging remarks to undergraduates about the value of going into the profession that has made him famous. One household-name broadcaster, himself no softie in the studio, told me recently: "People are becoming exhausted that we take a baseball bat to everybody." We'd enjoyed Paxman's 14 questions to Michael Howard, but it's time to move on.

However, many of the most prominent names in political journalism place themselves very firmly in the supporters' camp. Brian Walden, who with Robin Day virtually created the modern-day political TV interview, says Paxman has little option than to deploy shock and awe tactics.

"Jeremy is a brilliant interviewer. His problem is one I never had to suffer from - lack of time. I used to have 55 minutes. You can sit back and let them get it all off their chest. Then you say: 'Ah, now this raises a number of issues...' Jeremy's got no time to do that. And it does, of course, lead to the sort of things politicians disapprove of."

Walden says Paxman has no option but to jump straight in: "You've got eight and a half minutes. You can't do it forensically. You have to be ruder, I'm afraid, and blunter."

Not everyone is so understanding, though. According to his former spin doctor Amanda Platell, the former Tory leader William Hague refused to submit to a Paxman grilling for two years after what was seen as discourteous treatment meted out to Viscount Cranborne, erstwhile Tory leader in the House of Lords.

Adam Boulton, Sky's political editor, is an admirer of Paxman, but he has occasional doubts about his rival's "shock tactics". He says: "An awful lot of what we're all doing is trying to make the thing concise and interesting."

Since the rise of New Labour, "politicians of all parties have learned to play for time" in order to resist the temptation to depart from the briefings provided by party spin doctors and special advisers. "And frankly you do have to interrupt to deal with that. And people often don't like that kind of abruptness," Boulton adds.

But Paxo sometimes goes too far. "The latter-day Paxman interviews have moved on from that directness and confrontational approach to almost being studiedly insolent."

When Paxman attempted to throw David Cameron off balance with a question about an alcoholic cocktail called a "pink pussy", "that was just a rude question put in a rude way, to me for no other reason than to promote Jeremy's reputation as a rude interviewer." It might be entertainment, says Boulton, but what did we learn? "To me, the problem is that I don't think it drew blood. Were we actually any the better informed afterwards? I don't think so."

Paxman's methods have regularly brought him criticism. Two years ago, he was censured by the Broadcasting Standards Commission for "overly intrusive questioning" after asking the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy: "How much do you drink? Do you drink privately? By yourself, a bottle of whisky late at night?"

The BBC administered no public admonition of its star presenter, merely "noting" the BSC's finding. Paxman himself issued a half-apology admitting he'd asked "maybe one question too many".

In fact, his role within the corporation is safer now than it was then. Those in a position to know such things say that the current director-general, Mark Thompson, is more supportive of Paxman than his predecessors Greg Dyke and John Birt ever were.

Indeed, during Birt's reign, the corporation, spurred by the irritation of one or two grumpy traditionalists on the board of governors, launched a public consultation into "courtesy in interviewing". Birt's aim was to put Paxman and John Humphrys in their place.

Unfortunately for the director-general, when the results came back, according to a source, "the audience said they really liked Paxman and Humphrys - and, if anything, they thought we were too easy on politicians". At the most recent general election, too, Paxman's interviews with the main party leaders achieved high marks on the much-valued "audience appreciation" index.

"The key thing is to have a range of interviewers in your repertoire," says a senior BBC source. "But no one can seriously argue that you wouldn't have him in the portfolio." The problem, he says, is discouraging "the boy-racer junior interviewers" who attempt to imitate Paxman but do not have his depth of knowledge.

Other observers, pointing to his interview two years ago with JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, or maybe to more recent encounters with church leaders and disaster experts, suggest that when he really tries, Paxman is able to deploy a gentler approach to his subjects when he feels the necessity. Not that he does, very often: any producer looking for touchy-feely television is unlikely to knock on Paxo's door.

In fact, few of those on the receiving end of Paxman's interrogation sessions line up in the critics' corner, in public at least. "I think Paxman does very good interviews," says Tory MP Ann Widdecombe. "His style - bowling googlies and seeing how well you hit them - is perfectly reasonable."

Widdecombe might see a kindred spirit in Paxman, another of life's straight talkers with little time for the speak-your-weight spokesmen and women who have increasingly peopled the front benches.

They are the problem. And if they need to be jolted away from their prepared script with a shocking question about pink pussies, then so be it.

And they do need to be, thinks Brian Walden. "Is it a crime to catch people's attention? No, it isn't," he says. "Indeed I would say it's absolutely obligatory in that short space of time."


A name that sits well

An intriguing name has cropped up as successor to Boris Johnson as editor of The Spectator. William Sitwell, man about town and editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated keeps being tipped in a Press Gazette column written by former Punch editor James Steen. Is this a joke, as so many former colleagues of Sitwell assume? "No, I don't think so," says Sitwell, whose surname is widely regarded as his chief qualification for the job, with a touch of wounded pride. "It is quite intriguing, but James has made it clear to a friend that he has it on good authority. James is a very old friend of mine." An acquaintance of both Steen and Sitwell is less confident: "James is either trying to promote a mate or winding someone up. He's equally capable of either."

A passage too far

While her husband Nirpal Dhaliwal was away travelling recently, columnist Liz Jones published some curiously disobliging articles about their relationship. One newspaper was on the verge of sending a reporter to India to record his views. He remains a target for interviewers, but they will be disappointed. "The publicisation of our married life is over," he confides, "and I don't want to restart it. There is only room for one columnist in our marriage".

Glittering fixers

Former Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst gained another laurel last week when he was a member of the Pan Macmillan team that won the prestigious PEN Media-Biz Quiz at the Café Royal, leaving The Mail on Sunday, whose team included David Mellor, cursing in second place. Other luminaries doing battle included Margaret Drabble, Simon Hoggart and Libby Purves. Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby were Penguin Group team-mates, the latter presumably having no trouble when quizmaster John Sergeant served up a question based on Hornby's original best-seller Fever Pitch. Fix!

Vulcanic rumbles

Tory MP John Redwood MP, who in the past has been charged with being a Vulcan, recently complained to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Daily Mirror headlined "He's not human... don't vote for him". The grounds for the complaint was "inaccuracy". Redwood's complaint was not upheld. Does this mean the PCC thinks Redwood is a Vulcan? "The major inaccuracies John Redwood complained about were in the body of the article," pleads a PCC bod.

Howard's ending

Following Jim Naughtie's manly farewell to Michael Howard, outgoing Tory leader, on the BBC Today programme on Friday comes news of another adieu. Fi Glover, writing to her Broadcasting House listeners, bids "a special farewell" to Howard. "We shall miss him," she says. Alert listeners may recall Howard ringing in live to Broadcasting House in February to wish Glover many happy returns. "I've been one of her fans for a long time," he revealed, bringing a genteel blush to her face, apparently. Fi is herself disappearing shortly to have a baby. "We are thinking of calling it 'PM' for a girl and maybe 'Call You and Yours' for a boy." This is evidently an "in" joke.