Editor's Letter: I’m with Paxo - give people the facts and let them judge


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The Independent Online

Morning all. Channel 4 News carried a bit of television gold on Wednesday night. Jon Snow, who began presenting that programme in 1989, interviewed Jeremy Paxman, who began presenting Newsnight on BBC2 in the same year, but was retiring later that evening.

It was lovely to watch. Asked whether primetime current affairs and news would survive the digital onslaught, Paxman was coy, his tone nostalgic without meaning to be. Snow tried – unsuccessfully – to convince him of the merits of Twitter. The discussion heated up a little. You can build a following, said Snow, and have interesting conversations. Then he said to Paxman: “I’m trying to find out what makes you tick.”

To which Paxman responded: “I don’t want to lead anybody. I want to find things out. That’s what makes me tick. That’s all. That’s sufficient for me. Find things out, inform people, and let them make their own judgement.”

There was real moral force in these words, amplified by the setting, in which two giants of British broadcasting, who have been almost-rivals for a quarter of a century, toast one of their departures. My instinctive thought on hearing this was that it would be hard to put the ethos of this newspaper more succinctly. When Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds founded this paper, that was their approach to news. Find things out, inform people, and let them make their own judgement.

Ironically, Paxman was sounded out about being Editor of The Independent a couple of years ago.

I met him a few times, in the BBC studios, at Wormsley cricket ground in Buckinghamshire, and at a dinner last year. Two things always struck me. The first was that I’ve never known anyone whose public persona was so at odds with his private character. There were two people: Paxo, the Rottweiler who savaged Michael Howard and made pompous MPs tremble; and Jeremy, the erudite, shy historian who loved fishing, cricket and England.

The second thing is, the people who most benefit from his retirement are our political class. In any field of combat, you have to ask what your opponent would least like you to do. Journalists are instinctively combative regarding politicians and so, increasingly, are the public. With his retirement, a lot of people in Westminster will sleep more easily. Paxo’s departure takes a little sharpness off the scrutiny that makes our democracy strong.

By the way, thanks for the reminders about this column tipping an ageing Spain to win the World Cup a few weeks ago. I also got the England vs Sri Lanka Test match series wrong. I guess such errors are a timely reminder that Paxman’s approach to journalism – find things out, inform people, let them make up their own mind – beats the cult of punditry every time. Have a great weekend.