Michael Savage: Does Paxman have a Lib-Dem blind spot?

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The Independent Online

This is meant to be a big election for the Liberal Democrats. The spectre of a hung parliament has made them more popular than ever with Tory and Labour politicians. As the flirting begins, Nick Clegg has been handed the chance to give his policy demands an airing. No surprise, then, that newspaper hacks and television presenters have also been taking a greater interest. Well, most have. But one prominent media figure apparently never got the memo.

Newsnight producers have dutifully wheeled on Liberal Democrats for panel discussions, but its combative front man, Jeremy Paxman, has not been so reverential to the unfortunate sap occupying the third chair. First to find out was John Thurso, thrown forward as the party's business spokesman to appear alongside Lord Mandelson and Ken Clarke. It was never going to be a fair fight. Poor Viscount Thurso sat silently, sucking his beard.

Party officials were furious and complained, to little effect. Next to sit in Paxman's blind spot was Jeremy Browne, a Treasury spokesman. As Paxo refereed the battle between Ed Miliband and Philip Hammond, Mr Browne sat just out of shot. Four minutes in and he was given his moment. "It's important what the Lib Dem position is on all these matters," the presenter quipped, his words dripping with sarcasm. Mr Browne's agreement provoked a clarification from the host: "That was a joke."

Even a seasoned campaigner like Simon Hughes fared little better. Three minutes into a row between the shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, Paxman turned to Mr Hughes, claiming he was "always banging on about electoral reform". Moments later, he lost it. "Let's have a reality check here," Paxman interjected, sporting his trademark pained expression. "Are you seriously suggesting to us that Nick Clegg could emerge as the leader of the largest party?" Hughes confirmed this, keeping a straight face.

Such contempt was not only reserved for MPs. Advisers were similarly sidelined. On Tuesday, Danny Finkelstein and Peter Hyman, former Tory and Labour aides respectively, slugged it out. Sitting between them was Olly Grender, former aide to Paddy Ashdown. It didn't start well. "We saw two incredibly contrasting styles between the two main parties today, when... I mean two larger parties... sorry Olly," Paxman began. Like a Wimbledon umpire, Ms Grender then watched Mr Hyman and Mr Finkelstein engage in lengthy rallies. She did her best to cut in, but was not given much help by the man who was meant to be in the umpire's chair.

Whether the party's repeated complaints about Mr Paxman's approach will make any difference is by no means certain. However, it highlights a serious problem for Mr Clegg and his team.

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