ICE blogs

October 27, 2016

Paxman ‘the enigma’

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 9:26 am

John Mair reviews A life in question, by Jeremy Paxman (London, William Collins)

Jeremy Paxman is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. He is the best television journalist of this generation-in and out of the studio – yet surprisingly unconfident. Reading these, his early memoirs, he also appears an accidental man: lucky in school, lucky at Cambridge, lucky in the BBC. But it is luck made by a huge talent.

Paxman is aggressive in his work yet depressive in his private life. He admits in the book to regular therapy to compensate for an oppressive father (and the insecurity it brought). In the closed world of TV journalism, he is revered both for his professional skills but also for his personal kindness.

Reviewers should declare an interest. I have known’ JP’ for nigh on four decades. We spent a year as close colleagues on London Plus. One of the highlights of my own modest TV career was Paxo telling me during the Real Lives protest walk-out at the BBC in 1985 that he had almost resigned live on air that night in disgust over the corporation’s handling of the affair because ‘I knew only you would let me…’ We have been sort of friends (JP’s favoured mode) since. I am a huge fan.

As an interviewer he is unparalleled. Each encounter is a challenge. He prepares for it meticulously: on Newsnight he had a ‘brainstorming’ session each night with his producers just like a matador getting ready for the bull. His technique is simple: aim for the solar plexus with the first question. It is difficult to recover after that. Ask the hapless Chloe Smith, whose ministerial career was destroyed in five minutes by Paxo simply asking her: ‘When did you know about this decision – before or after lunch?’ Or ask Shaun Woodward, who was asked on winning St Helen’s for Labour in 2001: ‘Mr Woodward, did your butler vote Labour?’(Woodward was a rather posh defectee from the Tories who had taken his butler ‘Up North’). Or Tony Blair, who was asked whether he and President Bush ‘prayed together’.

The most famous grilling/toasting of them all then-home secretary, Michael Howard, asked 12/14 times in 1997 ‘Did you threaten to over-rule Mr Lewis?’ about a decision he had made. Paxo later claimed he was filling space. I think he is being economical with the actualité there. I produced a tribute dinner to him a decade ago. I sat him and Howard next to each other. It was très amusant; not a meeting of the minds.

Paxo giving interviewees a stuffing comes in a short tradition of British television losing its deference to politicians and authority. It was only five decades ago that Robin Day transferred his interrogatory skills from the courtroom to the TV studio. He, too, was an on-air bully but a pussy-cat face to face. I was his researcher for a while. Commentators say that the central Paxman dictum is that of Louis Heren, the legendary Times journalist, on politicians: ‘When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”’ He denies it. Many have tried – and still try – to imitate Paxman on screen. Most fail, badly. In his book, Paxman damns all others bar Jon Snow with less than faint praise for their skills. Aggressive questioning is no substitute in itself for good research.

Yet he is a creature of the format. Give him a gladiatorial one-on-one and he thrives. Get it wrong and he shows his contempt and looks very ordinary. I think of the Channel Four Referendum debate in June 2016. It was a total dog’s dinner and Paxo as MC was not going to make that turd shine. Likewise, a long discarded Question Time look-alike two decades ago, You decide with Jeremy Paxman. Paxo could never make that base metal shine either.

But television history will also remember Paxman as one of the great film reporters. From Spotlight in Northern Ireland through to Tonight and Panorama on the BBC, he has understood the central yet understated role of the reporter on film. Words, well-crafted but few. Plus presence on screen. One speaker at the Paxo tribute dinner had interviewed him for his first job in Belfast. After he left the room, the BBC appointments panel turned to each other and asked: ‘Do you think we impressed him?!’ Homing his reporting skills during ‘the Troubles’ was the perfect journalism academy: one mistake and you could be on the way to being a dead man with the terrorists. He has never lost those skills.

He dominated Newsnight for nigh on a quarter of a century. Since his ‘retirement’, it has lost kudos, gravitas and audience. When he was the ‘anchor’ (an Americanism very apposite in this case) woe betide any new programme editor with ideas like using new media or having a weather forecast. Paxo killed them simply by being withering on air. On form, on the night he was superb. A great journalist prepared to do his homework and to dig and dig until he got to what he considered to the truth or kernel of the story. Not the science of propulsion but a lesson for all wannabes now and in the future.

But who is Paxman? Some clues come across in the book though he protects his personal privacy very well. The product of a solid middle class family, less solid once his father left the Navy and guaranteed status for the uncertain world of Midlands manufacturing. Keith Paxman ultimately failed in that and left his family behind for a new life in the Southern seas. His mother, Joan, was much less flaky and rich enough through inheritance to put her children through the local (minor) public school, Malvern College. Even there, institutional straitjackets were bust by JP. He was rusticated twice, fortunately the second time after he had achieved a Cambridge scholarship. There, the ‘accidental man’ was lucky again falling into student journalism.

But you will not discover a huge amount about Paxman the man from these 300-plus pages. Those secrets are left on his therapist’s couch. This book is a good read as you would expect from a good journalist. Will it answer your questions about the meaning of life and media, will it face up to the great cultural studies issues of our times? Barely. His skill is not grand theory but practice day after day. Appreciate it, honour it – but most of all salute a master of the craft.

John Mair

Powered by WordPress