Paxman's style was entertaining - but not always enlightening

Tonight the Newsnight presenter will step down after 25 years. What is astonishing is how few politicians managed a good counter-attack in all that time

Share

Jeremy Paxman is awful, but we love him. I didn’t agree with his approach to interviewing politicians. He once said he thought, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” He has retreated from that since but he wrote a book in 2002 called The Political Animal in which he struggled to be fair about the noble calling of politics, and failed. “In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn't have politicians,” he wrote.

His technique was the diametric opposite of that espoused by Brian Walden, whose Weekend World programme once defined the political interview. Walden and his team would prepare with the rigour of a computer programme: “if answer B go to 16” and so on. Paxman was always a bit looser. His default question was always, “You’re in a mess, aren’t you?” Followed by a look of sneering disbelief when the suspect failed to confess.

Actually both approaches had their drawbacks. Walden was often plodding and mechanical, and more interesting if his careful preparation collapsed when the answer to the first question was not one of the options for which he had prepared.

Paxman’s style was more entertaining, but often failed to produce much by way of enlightenment. I mean, we discovered that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had indeed “threatened to overrule” the director of the Prison Service, but not why that mattered and anyway he hadn’t actually done so.

The Paxman approach was also fatally vulnerable to counter-attack, and what was astonishing about his career was how rarely a politician would have the confidence to say, “I know your game, Jeremy, and I’m not playing it: you are just trying to get a headline in tomorrow’s papers and I’m not going to give it to you.”

Nor did I agree with Paxman about Iraq. He wasn’t supposed to express an opinion about it, being a presenter on a public service broadcaster, and specifically the BBC, which had a corporate history on the subject. But he did, writing for The Guardian about the “lies that took us to war”. The BBC’s response was its usual cowardly bureaucratic obfuscation: three months later it accepted that Paxman shouldn’t have written it and “reminded” him of the need to “appear impartial at all times”.

READ MORE: JEREMY PAXMAN'S BEST NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEWS
LAST NEWSNIGHT TO SEE TANDEM BO-JO, PAXMAN CYCLE

He ignored the advice, as usual. His idea of being impartial is that terrible BBC fallacy that if you are equally rude to all the parties, you have done your duty by the Charter. That is how a Corporation founded on the noble ideal of educating, entertaining and informing has ended up helping to stoke the anti-politics mood.

Yet Paxman always redeems himself. In his interview with Russell Brand last year he turned the blast of his scorn on the antihero of anti-politics himself, asking why we should listen to the political views of someone who urges people not to vote. (This was undermined somewhat by the revelation a few months ago that Paxman himself hadn’t voted at “a recent election” because he “thought the choice so unappetising”, but the damage to Brand’s nihilism was already done.)

And yes, Paxman has not been a truly frightening prospect for any half-decent politician (a definition that does not, obviously, include the unfortunate Chloe Smith, the Treasury minister dismantled live on air in June 2012) for some time.

But even long after Paxo lost his stuffing, the Newsnight titles were different if he were on. If the announcer said, “Newsnight, presented by Jeremy Paxman”, there was a feathering of anticipation that no other presenter can generate. I shall miss him.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam