The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold : The night I needled the haughty Paxman

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The Independent Online
Forgive me, but I am not claiming that Mr John Birt was always my cup of tea. Far from it. When my fellow committee members and I first appointed him Director-General of the BBC (or "Auntie" as we affectionately term her in humourous columns!), I entertained a number of misgivings. "Do I detect a slight flare in those trousers of his?" I whispered to our chairman, Dukey Hussey, as Birt left the room after his interview. But Dukey assured me that Birt had no flare whatsoever, so I nodded through his appointment.

The first year or two with Birt at the wheel made for a bumpy ride. Indeed, of the recommendations I set out in my initial memo - newscasters to wear black tie and dinner jacket, television to start each day at 6pm and to continue no later than 10.30pm, the dread Paxman for the proverbial chop, less "satire", more gardening, the dismantling of Radio One - only one (the dismantling of Radio One) has come to pass.

For some time, my initial intimations of Birt's instability - that goofy grin, those glasses, those Billy Bunter suits - seemed to be bearing fruit. Might he not have been more gainfully employed as the straight man on Crackerjack? But now I am happy to relate, the grey clouds have passed, the early "spirit of rebellion" has gone south, and John has squeezed most comfortably into his allotted seat.

Last week, you may remember, he signalled his general change of gear by making what my old friend and quacking partner, Mr Paul Johnson, that most dispassionate of observers, has already hailed a "brave and wholly justified" speech, hitting out at the new breed of television bullyboy interviewer. I imagine the mad Paxman's lofty ears were red-hot. I imagine too that, for once, it was Paxman's own knees which knocked together in sheer terror, for now he knows that the writing is well and truly on the wall for him and his team of bloodthirsty thugs.

As Paul put it with typical pith: "As a journalist these past 40 years, I have learnt that it is the job of a journalist to report facts, and never to let his own opinions, if any, intrude. This has been my personal standard these past 50-odd years. And this is why it is so damnable and contemptible that the loathsome Paxman should peddle his anarchistic mumbo-jumbo in the guise of `questions' to men of distinction.''

And so say all of us! I first twigged that Paxman was a wrong 'un way back in '89 when I was invited by the BBC to address the nation on a topical issue of my own choosing. Or so I thought! I arrived at the Newsnight offices armed with a sheaf of notes on my chosen subject of "Trust and Compassion: Forging Ahead with the Conservatives". I was then curtly informed that a Mr Paxman would be "interviewing me". "I am very sorry," I retorted, "but the ordinary, decent viewer wishes to hear what I am saying on behalf of their elected representatives. The last thing that viewers want is for democracy to be undermined by chippy interruptions from a Stalinesque inquisitor!"

Half-an-hour later, I was shepherded into the Newsnight studios in order to face the aforementioned Paxman. "Mr Arnold," he began, a disdainful sneer in pride of place on his visage, "Mr Arnold, you are a Special Adviser to this Government; do you feel they are doing enough about the Unemployed?"

"I'd be grateful if you would have the common courtesy to let me deliver my speech to the nation without interruption," I replied. "I think even you might agree, Mr Paxman, that there are more important matters facing this nation than the haughty posturings of a jumped-up `personality' ! "

That needled him! I was no more than half a sentence into my speech - "We in the Conservative Party know that a steady hand on the tiller makes all the difference when times are . . ." when he attempted to interrupt me once more, putting up a barrage of questions, interruptions and petty bickering so that, in the end, like the innocent victim of the most ruthless kidnapper, I had no choice but to humour him with the odd reply.

Is this really the way forward for our democracy? Of course not. Happily, Birt is now a paid-up member of the commonsense brigade, and his plans for Paxman are well under way. Later this year, Paxman will be moved to Bullseye, the popular Sunday afternoon darts programme, from there to Songs of Praise, and he will finally come to rest in the Open University social anthropology course, transmitted at 4.50am on Sunday mornings. Bon voyage, Paxo, and for heaven's sake don't pretend we never warned you.