Thursday, May 01, 2014

Missing Paxo

After a series of fairly terse - if perfectly polite - exchanges of letters, Jeremy Paxman came and spoke to the students at Sutton Grammar at the beginning of the January term.  He did seem a little world-weary if I'm honest, but was an interesting conversationalist, cutting to the quick of topics, using a vast reservoir of knowledge to inform his comments and questions.  I asked him to speak on politics and journalism , although I got the impression he might have preferred the historical topic of World War 1, with which he was very clearly engaged.  He gave, as expected, a masterly survey of politics, spicing it with his own sceptical view (but not cynical I should add), and seemed to enjoy his question and answer session with the students.  His answers were vigorous, but why should anyone expect anything less, and he was himself never less than polite and interested in each student's question.  Perhaps one of the comments he made, in answer to a question about journalism (with which he still expressed a fascination) was reflective of the fact that - as we now know - he knew his time on Newsnight was coming to an end.  He noted that he was by far the oldest member of the Newsnight team, and you almost wondered whether he was himself starting to feel a little weary with it all.  Perhaps he was aware that he hadn't quite got the youthful excitement that must have first propelled him into journalism.

I enjoyed meeting him.  He was a rare figure, a political journalist known to pretty well every student in the school, who could bring celebrity (which he probably abhors) to the old fashioned task of political inquisition, and spark interest in youthful audiences that are themselves rather switched off from politics (Paxman in fact used his interview with Russell Brand as a hook for his talk, urging involvement in the political process to his student audience).  I had been keen for him to visit not just because of his television prominence, but also because many years previously I had seen him deliver a talk to a packed Methodist Central Hall of several thousand students, and belie his aggressive image with a down to earth assessment of politics and the politicians he interviewed and a real engagement with the students who asked questions.  Even then, he clearly liked students, rather more than the politicians who have been his daily fare.

I have long been a fan of Jeremy Paxman's anchoring and interviewing.  In particular his interviewing.  I think the heart of his interviewing technique has been his view of himself as a voice of the people, the man able to ask those difficult questions we want to ask ourselves.  He has been successful, and attained his fame, because he has never seen himself as part of the political class, challenging that class robustly and directly instead.  His questions have become 'aggressive' because he has come across so many politicians who have lost the ability to make answers for themselves as they cling to their adviser-prepared crib sheets.  His 'cynicism' is surely more just weariness with the failure to answer a direct question.  That was certainly the case with Michael Howard, who knew he'd been skewered.  It was the case with the over-promoted Chloe Smith, who floundered mightily when instead she might have got away with a more honest "you know what, we've messed up here and I am indeed too junior to have been told of the decision much in advance".  But politicians have lost the capacity for honesty, replacing it with ever more elaborate renditions of obfuscation.

I will miss the Paxman interview.  I will miss the sense that here, confronting this or that politician, is someone who won't allow them to hide behind their meaningless dialogue.  The sense that the political interview should be an honest dialogue, and that politicians who want to govern us should also be willing to engage in robust exchanges.  Politics should be robust after all.  Paxman has never been weary when confronted with someone genuinely interested in debate, in providing answers, in pursuing an intelligent dialogue.  He has been weary with the self-serving and the frankly just anodyne.  I'm not surprised he's now decided to focus on questioning students instead.



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