The code, the thief, his friend and his cover

Jeremy Paxman has never been known for sitting on the fence, which makes it all the more marvellous that he has, however innocently, seemingly become one. And now that he has been singled out to receive the stolen Enigma machine - which was posted to him at the Newsnight office at BBC Television Centre, reportedly from somewhere in the West Midlands - I can't help wondering whether a buzz might go round the underworld, to the effect that if you have a pinched Picasso in your basement, or a knocked-off Nicholson, or anything filched from Fabergé, and you reckon it might be too hot to handle, then send it to Paxo.

Jeremy Paxman has never been known for sitting on the fence, which makes it all the more marvellous that he has, however innocently, seemingly become one. And now that he has been singled out to receive the stolen Enigma machine - which was posted to him at the Newsnight office at BBC Television Centre, reportedly from somewhere in the West Midlands - I can't help wondering whether a buzz might go round the underworld, to the effect that if you have a pinched Picasso in your basement, or a knocked-off Nicholson, or anything filched from Fabergé, and you reckon it might be too hot to handle, then send it to Paxo.

Lesser valuables should be sent to Jon Snow at Channel 4, mere trinkets to Huw Edwards on the six o'clock news. You won't get any dosh for them. In fact you might end up in debit - after all, not only has the Enigma thief so far failed to get the £25,000 ransom money he had asked for, but the postage cost him £17.40. On the other hand, think of all that lovely publicity. Publicity with anonymity, the very best sort.

There are so many juicy dimensions to this particular story. For example, there are the delicious twin ironies of a code-breaking machine itself being at the centre of a riddle, and a news presenter himself being at the centre of a news story. The symmetry is glorious.

And there are all the obvious questions besides. Who on earth nicked it? Why send it to Paxman? Is the date of the theft - 1 April - in any way relevant? Might the stolen Enigma machine be deployed, after lying idle at Bletchley Park all these years, to solve the mystery?

Heck, is there perhaps a fiendish code somehow contained in the name Jeremy Paxman, which the machine could break to yield the identity of the thief, discovering, for instance, that he is a no-good Albanian, living in Dudley, called Ymerej Namxap? Or am I just getting silly?

Whatever, there does seem to be a growing phenomenon of news presenters becoming the news, Jill Dando being the most striking and tragic example. In fact, to distil the phenomenon even more, the news has become the news, witness all the ludicrous media kerfuffle about the BBC's nine o'clock news hastily moving to 10 o'clock, thereby trumping ITN's News at Ten, which we were told might, but now might not, be returning to 10 from 11. All very confusing. But you get my drift. With the news organisations so enthusiastically scrutinising their own navels, it was only a matter of time before a similar sort of alchemy turned Newsnight into the night's news.

There is an aspect of the story I find perturbing, though. The parcel lay around until Paxman returned from a few days off, when he opened it to find the machine carefully contained inside layers of bubble wrap. So what I want to know is this: how come Paxman opens his own post, especially mysterious large packages? With all the people he's roughed up on Newsnight, that's just asking for trouble. It could have been full of Semtex, dispatched by disgruntled Irish Republicans. It might even have been full of rancid guacamole, sent by Peter Mandelson, still miffed about being outed on the programme.

And one final thought occurs, albeit an absurd one. Had Paxman and Newsnight been born 50 years earlier, would there even have been a need for a code-breaking machine? I think not. No Nazi officer worth his Iron Cross would have been able to resist going head to head with Paxo, who would, of course, have bullied him into submission. With that potent mixture of aggression, world-weariness and condescension, he would have asked the same question at least 14 times - "what is the code, Herr Schickelgruber, what is the code?" - until the game was well and truly up.

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