‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’
For many years, this was widely thought to be Jeremy Paxman’s governing consideration when interviewing senior politicians. In actual fact, the line was spoken by former colleague Louis Heren but it doesn’t take a particularly elastic imagination to see why the popular myth took root.
When, in June, Paxman finally hangs up those weary eyebrows and quits Newsnight, he will cap a glittering career. For 25 years, Paxman’s main talent has been the ability to ask questions of the foremost inconsequence in the manner of a courtroom drama auditionee.
‘Let me just get this straight, Prime Minister: are you really admitting, in front of an incredulous and god-fearing nation, many of whose citizens may well have fought for their country, some in an actual war, that you have no idea – NO IDEA – how many paving stones lie ASKEW in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham?!’ That sort of thing.
It may or may not be my view that he ushered in a new species of ad hominem interrogation which was less ‘interviewing’ in the traditional sense and more just ‘being rude with impunity’. In fact, if you were to ask him to define journalism, he’d probably say it was ‘being professionally incredulous.’ No wait, that’s actually quite a good definition of journalism. He’d probably define it as something worse than that. Something to do with being a twat for money.
I mean granted, it’s enormously gratifying to watch doyens of the establishment splutter and squirm but surely the Reithian ideal is about public enlightenment by the unearthing of truth, not public titillation by sticking the boot into some luckless junior spokesperson who’s been wheeled out to defend the latest government U-turn. Because, of course, the U-turn is the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t matter what you’re turning from or to: simply being caught in anything even resembling a renunciation makes you look like you’re not omnipotent. Heaven forbid.
The point is it has always seemed far more important for Paxman to catch his interviewee looking flustered than to test the rigour of their argument or the right-headedness of their policy. If they stammered or mispronounced a word, that’d probably do. If a little bit of dribble came out, he’d get a knighthood.
Don’t get me wrong, it does serve a purpose to bring these people down a peg or several; to fluster them. But it shouldn’t be the only purpose. And by making it his only purpose, one might say Paxman has contributed to the rise of a political class who’ve made it their only purpose to avoid looking flustered. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying as long as they don’t look flustered.
One might even say that the viciousness of Paxman and his po-faced apostles is to blame for unleashing upon us a generation of politicians so comprehensively trained in how to deflect media scrutiny that it’s impossible to get any fucking sense out of them at all.
One might say that. Who am I to judge.
Anyway, at least Paxo is still going to keep dotting his Ts and rolling his eyes on University Challenge where his victims are of an altogether lower calibre. So we’ll be able to carry on watching him reduce callow virgins to masses of quivering acne over the correct pronunciation of Herodotus.
And I can’t see any downside to that.
I don’t know what my point was.