DIARY: Fired by John Birt's Phillippic

  • @johnhenrywalsh
Fired by John Birt's Phillippic about the nastiness of modern interview techniques, I tuned into Newsnight to see if Jeremy Paxman was still as ill-tempered and bullying as the Tory tabloids (following Mr Birt) are claiming. Or would he have comp romisedhis instincts and gone respectful?

The subject under discussion was veal. On the left, Carla Lane, the Sindy's-Mum-haired animal rights activist; on the other side, Barbara Smith, a dairy farmer; beside her, a suit from the RSPCA who didn't get a word in because the, as it were, meat of the discussion lay with the women. Are you, Jeremy asked Carla, on an unstoppable bandwagon? Are you, Barbara, part of a dying industry? Carla, do you believe animals have rights? Barbara, do you treat animals well and, if so, why? Paxman was a Platonic ideal of even-handedness and politeness. When he once accidentally cut across one of his guests, he stopped as if guillotined and said: "So sorry, go ahead."

It couldn't last and it didn't. A stray remark from Carla Lane, about separating calves from their weeping mothers, brought out the Paxman demon. His body language went haywire (vampiric chin on chest, hand clutching face, body arched like Anglepoise lamp) as he demanded: "I'm sorry ... I don't want to appear rude here, but you've just talked about a grieving mother cow. We're about to hear a report from Chechnya, we hear terrible reports every day from Bosnia. What is it about you people that engages youso much, to the exclusion of other issues that are about human beings?" An unfair question, of course, and one that Carla Lane handled easily. But in those two words, "you people", the Paxo gene was isolated. It isn't rudeness, or John Humphries-style bullying, or parti pris point-scoring. It is a note of utter exasperation with the world's peculiar hierarchy of causes, sympathies and solutions that is unique to Paxman and should be treasured. And at least he didn't call anyone a dimwit.