An enigma wrapped in paradoxes

Friends of the 'Newsnight' presenter say it is fitting that he should have been sent the stolen decoding device - he, too, is irreplaceable, priceless and difficult.
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When Jeremy Paxman opened a carefully sealed package in the offices of Newsnight last week, only to discover the stolen Second World War Enigma decoding machine, no one was more surprised than Britain's stroppiest interviewer himself. "I've got no idea why they sent it to me. As far as I know I haven't got a reputation as a receiver of stolen goods," he said. If anyone, he said, it should have gone to his good friend Robert Harris, author of a bestselling novel about cracking the code.

When Jeremy Paxman opened a carefully sealed package in the offices of Newsnight last week, only to discover the stolen Second World War Enigma decoding machine, no one was more surprised than Britain's stroppiest interviewer himself. "I've got no idea why they sent it to me. As far as I know I haven't got a reputation as a receiver of stolen goods," he said. If anyone, he said, it should have gone to his good friend Robert Harris, author of a bestselling novel about cracking the code.

But, as more than one of his colleagues remarked, his brief role as "fence" was strangely fitting. "A lot of terms which have been used about the Enigma machine, like 'irreplaceable', 'priceless', 'difficult', can be used about Jeremy," joked one. "He is the Enigma of Television Centre."

The public view of "Paxo", one of Britain's best-known political interviewers, is fairly straightforward. He is relentless, aggressive, a pricker of pomposity and obfuscation, or a "kicker against the pricks", as he once described himself. He will be for ever associated with the classic television moment when he asked the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, the same question 14 times in an attempt to get a straight answer (although he later claimed he had simply been trying to kill time). His appearances as presenter of University Challenge are nothing like the genteel inquiries of Bamber Gascoigne, being punctuated by exasperated cries of "oh, come on".

But those closer to him describe a more complex - and yes, enigmatic - character: a man obsessed with the public's right to know, who guards his own private life more fiercely than almost anyone else in the public eye; a man renowned for his aggression who can display great charity and gentleness; a fiercely impatient interviewer who glories in the meditative sport of fishing; a man who considers it imperative to remain outside the political loop - and yet numbers among his friends key establishment figures.

So, is Paxman a mass of contradictions and paradoxes? Or is it simply that, unlike him, we are asking the wrong questions? Friends say that Paxman's public image is not based on fact, but on the Rory Bremner impression of him (recently succeeded by a Harry Enfield version). "It strikes me as being more Colonel Blimp than Jeremy," says one. "I've never actually heard him say one of those drawn out Yeeesses."

That said, he can be spectacularly rude. There are few others who would ask of a senior politician, as he did of Norman Lamont, whether he would miss his job. Or of Cecil Parkinson: "You're the chairman of a fertiliser firm. How deep is the mess you're in at present?" He is, say television insiders, still considered the master of the "eight-minute one-on-one" interview, and relishes a fight. "Where he's at his best is in delivering the coup de grâce to someone who is already slightly on the ropes," said one. "As an expert angler, he's good at bringing his catch into shore and then bashing them over the head."

Another who worked with him on Newsnight genuinely believes Paxman "gives off some sort of chemical, some pheromone, which discombobulates people. I've worked with some real hard guys, big names, and yet somehow he always made me nervous." And yet he can be surprisingly gentle, as he showed when interviewing a survivor of the Paddington rail crash, Pam Warren, last week.

He has often professed surprise at his reputation for rudeness. He would no doubt describe it as "rigour". Certainly, according to those who have worked with him, he is enjoyable company - but "dismissive of stupidity", and with a journalistic and intellectual thoroughness not always found in television's best-known presenters.

"Writing questions or a script with Jeremy is a great pleasure if you know what you're talking about," says one. "He's not one of those presenters who comes into the office, does their stuff and goes away; he cares about this being the public's right to know, and the exact phraseology and nuances in a script are much more important for him than for many presenters." He may have gone straight from university to the BBC in 1977, but he cannot be accused of being "just a pretty face". He counts among his postings Northern Ireland correspondent and Breakfast Time presenter, neither of which are the sexiest jobs in television, but which may explain his serious credentials.

It is this rigour, admired by many in the media, that ironically may have cost him one of the top jobs in broadcasting, a job to which many thought he was the rightful heir: Question Time. Paxman, it was thought by senior figures in the BBC, was likely to be "too hard" on members of the audience, and particularly likely to alienate women (despite so many professing to find him attractive). It may have been an unfair decision, but he is considered to have been a success on University Challenge, which he was given subsequently, some say as "compensation". It is a less unanimous verdict for Radio 4's Start The Week, in which some feel he lacks Melvin Bragg's erudition, and is inappropriately hard on guests.

He is evidently not a relentless toughie; he has a long-term partner, the film-maker Elizabeth Clough, a daughter and young twins, whom he adores (although those awaiting a public display of affection in Hello! would be unwise to hold their breath). But friends also say that he is "solitary", and he has publicly, albeit uncomfortably, spoken of his tendency to depression (in his 20s, apparently, he didn't think he would make it to 30). "Like all the best journalists he is driven by demons ... in the early days he didn't have anywhere to channel it, so he was fairly wild," said one. "Now he has a platform to attack people who deserve it, he seems to have settled down." He is also charitable; he, Harris, and an elite gathering of London's intelligentsia help raise money for the Turville Valley school, which runs country holidays for inner-city children, through "quiz nights" at London's celebrated River Café. It is his place at these kinds of gatherings that contradict the image of him as someone determinedly outside the "establishment loop". Certainly his background - born to an affluent, middle-class family (his father ran a Birmingham steelworks), schooled at Malvern and Cambridge, where he edited Varsity - hardly suggests a rank outsider. When Peter Mandelson was "outed" on Newsnight, it emerged that Paxman had sent him an apology afterwards. He defended it on the grounds that Mandelson should be allowed a private life - but publicly it was perceived as an admission that the great debunker was closer to those in power than had been thought.

At his 50th birthday party earlier this year, held in the discreetly glamorous confines of west London's Cobden Club, Harris described him as "the Cliff Richard of late-night broadcasting ... threatening to move effortlessly from enfant terrible to national treasure". While his assembled friends laughed, it may not have been that far from the truth.

Paxman's legendary rudeness seems to have metamorphosed in the public eye into the qualities of honesty, integrity and straightforwardness that make him an ideal recipient of stolen goods - those that need to be returned without too much grandstanding, anyway.

This perverse public affection is his insurance. He is bigger than Newsnight's 1.2-million audience, and is widely considered the "face" of BBC2. His bosses, who are said to be "terrified" of losing him to ITV, which makes periodic advances, allow him time off to write books, which have become increasingly successful. His latest, The English, was a bestseller.

But like all the best enigmas, contradictions remain. For a man so successful, and perceived by so many as arrogant (he was famously blackballed by the Garrick because of it), he is apparently insecure about his own future.

At this year's Edinburgh Television Festival, the BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, took a question from a woman asking: "Can you guarantee that Newsnight will still be on at 10.30 in five years' time?"

Dyke replied that no one could be assured of something that far ahead, adding "and the audience should know that the questioner is Jeremy Paxman's agent".

"Actually," she replied. "Jeremy asked me to ask for a guarantee for 10 ..."

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