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

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”.

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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.

 

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