Have they found the answer to Paxman?
After years of terrifying guests, the grand inquisitor was bested twice last week. Brian Brady asks if there's a knack all can learn
For more than 20 years, politicians have sent their minions into the Newsnight bear pit to defend their honour, armed only with a few weak pieces of advice throbbing in their heads. "Stay calm"; "Stick to the point"; "Don't let him rile you". The vast majority have been dispatched, mercilessly and witheringly, by a man who does not try to hide his contempt for the grubby politicians hauled before him.
Jeremy Paxman, journalist, author and lifelong Leeds United fan, is an extraordinary combination of intellect with the brutalist approach of the team's 1970s stalwart Norman Hunter. "He bites your legs," one celebrated victim recalled of their confrontations last night. "But he doesn't stop at your legs."
The list of Paxman victims affronted live on air is lengthy and legendary, from Tony Blair and Michael Howard to the "attack dog" John Reid. Henry Kissinger walked out of Start the Week after being asked: "Did you feel a fraud accepting the Nobel Prize?" Earlier this year, Paxman accused Alex Salmond of behaving like Robert Mugabe.
It used to be rare to see politicians holding their own against Jeremy Paxman. Yet last week, in a single edition of Newsnight, two would-be victims managed to face him down and escape with their reputations intact. George Galloway, the new Respect MP for Bradford West, was typically belligerent when questioned about his praise for Syria, admonishing: "Please don't think that I'm on trial in front of you, Jeremy; you aren't fit to be my judge."
Minutes later, the lobbyist Lord Bell was all urbane charm and restrained irritation as he responded to criticism of his company and his industry. After almost 10 minutes of weary lecturing from the consummate PR man, Paxman was reduced to lamenting: "I'm beginning to rather regret inviting you."
The irony is that several politicians reckon they worked out how to handle him years ago. Unfortunately, few of them managed to put their plans into practice under studio lights, with the beast bearing down upon them.
The media commentator Steve Hewlett, who once attempted to produce a guide for "beating" Paxman, found former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe warning "there was going to be a confrontation", while former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik observed that Paxman was "somebody who feels he has the right to exert authority". He added: "You don't have to let him get away with it; you can treat him as an equal." Neither individual has had noticeable success when facing the man himself.
When he was health secretary Frank Dobson managed to disarm Paxman with the honesty of his answers during an interview about the Bristol babies heart-surgery scandal. Most strikingly of all, the then Tory leadership candidate David Cameron snapped during an interview that began with a question about a drink called "Pink Pussy": "This is the trouble with these interviews, Jeremy. You sit someone down and treat them like they are a cross between a fake or a hypocrite and give them no time to answer your questions."
Hewlett said: "By not getting riled and refusing to play by the rules... Cameron appealed over his inquisitor's head to the audience and took control over the interview. Technically, it was a quite brilliant performance."
Good-natured, yet assertive; polite, yet willing to reveal some anger: although it has taken more than six years to catch on, one younger Tory MP admitted yesterday the bravura performance had become "the template" for dealing with Paxman. Some have managed to reproduce it more successfully than others but, if it catches on, Paxman will need to rediscover his roar.
Taming the beast: The tactics they used to turn the tables
David Cameron Tory leadership candidate in 2005. Polite but firm and exasperated at the line of questioning...
Paxman "Do you know what a 'Pink Pussy' is?"
Cameron "This is the trouble with these interviews, Jeremy. You sit someone down and treat them like they are a cross between a fake or a hypocrite and give them no time to answer your questions."
Ann Coulter Right-wing American author, known as "the Republican Michael Moore". Polite insouciance verging on patient exasperation...
Paxman "You describe Darwinism as 'the liberals' creation myth'... What is your alternative?"
Coulter "I'm a critic of Darwinism. I could be a restaurant critic without having to start my own restaurant."
George Galloway Respect MP for Bradford West. Controlled aggression...
Galloway "Oh, don't start by insulting me, Jeremy."
Paxman "'Bradford Spring'... an odd form of words for a man who described President Assad's Syria as 'the last castle of Arab dignity'."
Galloway "Please don't think that I'm on trial in front of you, Jeremy; you aren't fit to be my judge."
Lord Bell Tory peer, co-founder of lobbyists Bell Pottinger. Smooth but headmasterly, dismissive of criticism
Paxman "You wouldn't object [to a client] on moral grounds?"...
Bell "I'm not a priest. I have my own personal morality. All this... about [lobbying] transparency is just rubbish and claptrap."
Paxman "I'm beginning to rather regret inviting you."
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