Jeremy Paxman: Uncertain assassin

For all the on-screen scorn, the man who makes Michael Howard's hands shake is a shy, kindly, unfulfilled soul. He's not sure that taking a verbal baseball bat to politicians is a worthy pastime. And after more than 30 years, his bosses are starting to feel the same way
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It probably wasn't the wisest idea to come armed with props. When Michael Howard's advisers were putting together his strategy for taking on Jeremy Paxman - he of the 14 questions - on Friday they decided it would strengthen the Conservative leader's case if he brought with him two pieces of paper: in his right pocket, a note containing a quote from the late Roy Jenkins, allegedly in support of Tory immigration policy; in his left, a letter from Tony Blair designed to embarrass the Prime Minister over asylum.

It probably wasn't the wisest idea to come armed with props. When Michael Howard's advisers were putting together his strategy for taking on Jeremy Paxman - he of the 14 questions - on Friday they decided it would strengthen the Conservative leader's case if he brought with him two pieces of paper: in his right pocket, a note containing a quote from the late Roy Jenkins, allegedly in support of Tory immigration policy; in his left, a letter from Tony Blair designed to embarrass the Prime Minister over asylum.

Great idea. Except that the moment Mr Howard pulled the PM's note out, the trembling began. Invisible up until this point in the interview, it was immediately clear that the hands of the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition were shaking in the presence of Her Majesty's interrogator-in-chief.

Another victory for Paxman. And another chance for him to revel in the praise of his friends, colleagues and rivals as they congratulate him on his three party-leader interviews this week. "A genuine original," says his close pal and fellow author Robert Harris. "Brilliant," says a former Newsnight colleague. "The best in our trade by a very long shot," says Jon Snow, who was, erroneously he says, quoted a few days ago apparently attacking the Newsnight star. Snow, who has known Paxman since the pair worked alongside each other in Central America in the Eighties, adds: "He has enlivened the entire business and created a bit of the jungle that is his alone."

So what is it that drives Paxman? Supporters and detractors agree that he is intensely competitive, is given to periods of grave self-doubt and embodies many contradictions. They talk about his shyness, his pre-interview nerves ("like an actor, there is that sense that he is going into himself, trying to find something more") and the way he beats himself up every bit as roughly as his on-screen victims ("afterwards, he agonises over interviews").

On the surface, Paxman, 54, ought to be a very contented paid-up member of the establishment. He moved from Malvern College, through Cambridge University to the BBC. His first posting, in 1974, was in Northern Ireland. He is an accomplished author (his best-selling book, The English, is an A-level set text). He lives with his television producer partner, Elizabeth Clough, and their three children in an Oxfordshire village where the church dates back to the 13th century and the pub to the 1500s. Yet he views himself as somehow separate from all that he has come from and all that he surrounds himself with.

"He is a unique combination of things: an insider and an outsider; interested in politics and despising it," Harris says. "He is a unique product of English education and society." He compares Paxman to George Orwell, a product of Eton and the Colonial Service, and another English iconoclast. (In the early 1980s, Paxman applied to edit the New Statesman, describing himself as "a socialist" and advocating abolition of the House of Lords.)

It is this contradiction, say others, which explains his on-screen shtick. One senior BBC broadcaster, less of a fan, observes: "The secret of his success is that he has taken this fractured self and used it to break up other people on screen. His frustration at whatever it is inside him makes for great broadcasting."

Perhaps Paxman recognises some of this. He has spoken of looking for answers in therapy - "a waste of time" - and through faith: "I would still like to believe. I really would."

But many claim that he feels ultimately unfulfilled, though Harris disputes this. One BBC colleague recalls Paxo telling friends that "the biggest disaster of his life was that he hadn't been able to prove himself in war." He is said to feel that sitting behind a desk asking questions of the people whom Robin Day would have described as "here today, gone tomorrow" politicians is not a substantial way to wile away time on the planet. Perhaps to assuage this feeling, he is known to do more than his share of inconspicuous charity work. "He is not hubristic," says an admiring colleague. "He would be the first person to say that he is not that important."

Another BBC insider puts it more brutally. If Paxman feels such obvious contempt for his interviewees, where does that leave someone who spends all his professional life in the company of such people? "In the end, if you have smashed up everything in the shop, there is no shop to run."

A move to another branch of journalism - there was a moment in the Nineties when he considered transferring his skills to newspapers - is unlikely to calm the sense of uselessness that this most fearless of TV men still feels in low moments. "There is," says a friend, "always a slightly saturnine element to Jeremy ... never feeling anything is good enough."

Despite his trademark gloom and occasional moodiness - temporarily lifted by a good morning's fly-fishing, the coldly logical part of his brain tells Paxman that he is remarkably well rewarded and popular, despite some doubts about his techniques among BBC high-ups.

In the mid-1990s, John Birt, then director-general, was concerned that the approach typified by Paxman was alienating viewers, and instructed Roger Mosey, the BBC's head of television news, to lead a project into "courtesy in interviewing". When the research data came in, Mosey revealed last week, "The results were unambiguous. If anything, our audiences thought we were too soft on the politicians. Many wanted us to give them an even harder time." The project was quietly dropped.

Sometimes Paxman, who can be wry and gentle as well as scornful and dismissive, does not help himself. He must surely now regret once mentioning with admiration the fact that an interviewer's guiding principle while carrying out an interrogation ought to be "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" Paxo was quoting a former deputy editor of The Times, but the words have become attached to him. He recently attempted to extricate himself from them. "Do I think that everybody you talk to is lying? No I do not. Only a moron would think that," he said. "But do I think you should approach any spokesman for a vested interest with a degree of scepticism, asking 'Why are they saying this' and 'Is it likely to be true?' Yes, of course I do."

Yet the uneasiness in the BBC continues. Three months ago, the corporation's chairman Michael Grade warned that the BBC should avoid "slipping into the knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every politician as a lie ... when scepticism becomes cynicism it can block the search for truth."

One household-name broadcaster says: "People are becoming exhausted that we take a baseball bat to everybody. They really enjoyed it for a while - the 14 questions to Michael Howard was the absolute watershed moment but you can see the cracks starting to show in the consensus that this is the way to interview politicians. The really big test for the Beeb will be, if this is Dimbleby's last election, do they give the next one to Paxo? From the way people are talking, I suspect they won't."

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