What makes a broadcasting titan? In the case of Jeremy Paxman, it was six words. Or 72 words, by the time he had repeated them 12 times. Those words were “Did you threaten to over-rule him?” and Paxman tossed them at the then Home Secretary Michael Howard over and over in such subtly varying RP tones of disbelief, disapproval and disappointment it might have been a Rada masterclass.
That was in 1997 and it was only 10 years later that Paxman admitted that the battering was more an obedient response to a voice in his earpiece telling him to fill time than it was a heroic bid for truth. That’s the magic of television. And when it works like it did that night – a single question nailing all of the nation’s worst fears about MPs and their slippery, specious ways – who cares what is happening behind the scenes?
In that moment, Paxman went from being a respected journalist to a revered one. He became a surname-only broadcaster, a big beast, to borrow a favoured virile image of the BBC’s political commentators. His tenure on Newsnight is a remarkable achievement – a quarter of a century holding the establishment to tetchy, narrow-eyed account.
The hullabaloo that greeted the news of his retirement this week came as no surprise, even if, with hindsight, the news itself was not all too surprising. For a presenter whose default mode has always been brusque incredulity shading into bored impatience, of late his chairing of Newsnight had oozed ennui. There were odd occasions when he skewered his interviewees with as much enthusiasm as a Dad poking at a rainy bank holiday barbecue.
Never a fan of dropping the dead donkey, the task of delivering the show’s new quirky sign-offs seemed physically to pain him. Then there was the beard – the equivalent of those screw-you last days of school when you stop tucking your shirt in and start wearing your tie around your head. The clearest sign of demob delirium was an interview he gave a fortnight ago in which he called the BBC “smug” and said he couldn’t stand swathes of its output. It was disrespectful and arrogant of him but this is Paxman: disrespectful arrogance is his thing.
In his time, Paxman provided some of the best political interviews in television history. His bouts with Howard, Tony Blair, Nick Griffin and Conrad Black are the most replayed on YouTube, but one question – “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”, his journalistic creed, and one to savour – underpinned all his encounters.
There were also less good moments. In a dreadful interview with Dizzee Rascal, in which he called him “Mr Rascal” and asked the Bow-born rapper if he felt British, he came over like a supercilious high court judge. A turn with Russell Brand, in which he was amused rather than irritated by the comedian’s woolly call for revolution, was embarrassing. Indeed, when Paxman announced his retirement, Brand was one of the first to tweet his regret. “Paxman come back! This is not the revolution we intended.”
Former adversaries have been lining up to share their survivors’ tales. “I am privileged to have been on the receiving end of a Paxman grilling… and have always enjoyed the challenge,” said Boris Johnson. “I am so pleased that I was able to have a final ‘Paxman experience’,” said Ann Widdecombe. Even Howard has written that he “greatly regrets” Paxman’s departure. Going a round with “Paxo” was in danger of becoming something for MPs to relish, not fear; to enjoy even.
Certainly Paxman will be missed but post-Savile, post-McAlpine, this might be a necessary new dawn for Newsnight. It might even herald the end of the combat interview, a macho approach too long favoured by the BBC. There are occasions when only a bruising slanging match will do but MPs have become wise to it, making too many head-to-heads five minutes of punches, parries and blocks with little revelation in between. Perhaps now someone – Eddie Mair, maybe, who has a useful iron fist in his velvet glove – will dare to be different.
It has been reported that Paxman’s leaving was finally triggered by a ticking-off from the BBC’s Head of News, James Harding, for his criticisms of the corporation. If that is the case, one cannot blame Harding for doing his job. And one cannot blame Paxman for walking away when he was at risk of becoming the story himself.
Going a round with Paxo had risked becoming something to enjoy