I interviewed Jeremy Paxman last night. It was a private event, under the Chatham House rule, so I'm not able to share what the great man said about the BBC, or the government, or the Royal Family, or whether he still watches Newsnight. But I can talk about the experience of interviewing Paxman. It was a daunting undertaking, rather like being invited to play tennis with Roger Federer, or sing karaoke with Andrea Bocelli, and even though I was the one asking the questions, it was quickly apparent that he was the man in charge.
After 25 years of cross-examining the most significant figures in public life, Paxman knows all there is to know about the interviewing process, and he wasn't going to let me have the upper hand, cleverly subverting some of my lines of inquiry, occasionally turning on the famous Paxo scorn when he felt something unworthy, and, from time to time, firmly rebutting the very premise on which a question was framed.
For me, it was thrilling and nervously exhausting in equal measure, but for the audience, it was an elevating and entertaining experience. Paxman, for all the bluster and belligerence, gives more light than heat.
Even though he is out of the media frontline these days, Paxman's legacy lives on, and has even made that rare journey into popular phraseology. It was interesting that, when the radio presenter and classical musician Myleene Klass took Ed Miliband to the cleaners on a ITV's The Agenda the other night, she was described by those who took to Twitter as "doing a Paxman". One correspondent said that "Myleene Klass goes full Paxman".
The man once described as the "high priest of adversarial interviewing" has made it acceptable to challenge public figures in the most strident terms. Some may point to this as further evidence of the coarsening of society, but I think it's a vibrant expression of democracy.
The age of deference is over, and Paxman has been a major force in breaking down some traditional conventions. So a former pop singer doesn't feel any constraints about challenging the leader of Her Majesty's opposition on a policy question, in this instance the mansion tax. "No one thinks this is going to work," Ms Klass told Mr Miliband. "You can't just point at things and tax them. You need to have a better strategy and say why the NHS is in this mess in the first place."
Paxo's best verbal jousts
Paxo's best verbal jousts
1/3 Denis Halliday, 1998
“Aren’t you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?” demands Paxman of the senior United Nations official following resignation of his post in Iraq
2/3 Chloe Smith, 2012
“Is this some sort of joke?” Paxman demolishes the youngest Coalition minister over a rise in fuel duty
3/3 Russell Brand, 2013
“You are a very trivial man,” says the Newsnight presenter as he tangles with the comedian over beards and revolutionary politics
She had a good command of her brief, a nerveless approach, and a mixture of certainty and moral courage. You could absolutely say she "did a Paxman", and Miliband would have been bruised by the confrontation. I know that this form of interrogation is not to everyone's taste, but it would be a disservice to all of us if it was consigned to the past, with the departure of Paxman and, eventually, John Humphrys.
I just can't see that style of dogged, snarling TV interviewer being bred any more. I'm not saying it's the only way to hold our leaders to account, but it certainly keeps them on their mettle. And for an hour or so last night, I was given a glimpse of what it must have felt like to be Chloe Smith or Michael Howard.Reuse content