Shall we talk about Jeremy Paxman? C’mon, c’mon, I’ll have to press you ! Oh come ON! Here is a man with a reputation. He gave the world the Paxo Stuffing. He treads where no man dares by asking the late Charles Kennedy about his drink problem, eviscerating junior minister Chloe Smith and even pulls up his own reporters for hyperbole (the somewhat eccentric Paul Mason). Oh yeah, and there’s the Michael Howard thing, of course.
The reason we ask is because the irascible former BBC Newsnight front man and sexist scourge of snowflake students from Reading University is out there punting his book, A Life In Questions, in the run-up to Christmas. Hence the Round-Up found itself at Westminster’s Church House to hear the Grand Inquisitor, well, quizzed by Danny Finkelstein of The Times.
If you haven’t delved into Paxo’s autobiographical tome, go carefully. It’s a curate’s egg. A bit of a spoiler alert but the prose can be leaden and he sometimes struggles to sustain the narrative. The best bits come in a flurry of end-piece observations on life in general. The horrors of ‘celebrity’ culture, the flaws in social media and the joy of fishing. It may be a by-product of journalism to be at one’s best in short bursts but Paxo is.
However, live in London, JP comes to life. A bit like Shakespeare, perhaps better seen than read. A less lugubrious figure treating the audience to the full range of Paxmanesque fidgets, snarls, contemplations and, in fairness, laughs.
It should also be added that he has an armoury of deflection techniques that would shame a media trainer, including asking whether his fly is open, claiming he can’t undo the clip-top water bottle and, most outrageously of all, suddenly noticing, after 40+ years in broadcast, that earpieces are uncomfortable to wear. The Round-Up isn’t entirely sure @Dannythefink was impressed.
Anyway, when next you contemplate the reputation of a man who has, after all, become something of a national institution, here’s a few highlights to illuminate the dinner party chat.
People seem oddly obsessed with psychoanalysing him. One man stood to say that he’d been been born in the same month and year as JP and ‘been forced to follow his career closely’. ‘And I yours’, Paxo shot back, adding ‘that spell in Pentonville was unfortunate, wasn’t it?’. Undeterred the questioner wanted to know whether the Paxmanesque aggression near authority was related to his poor relationship with his father. This, and several others in the same vein, Newsnight’s finest declined to indulge, though he rather asks for it by teasingly revealing all and yet nothing at all in his book.
On journalism, he reveals an unusual degree of self-awareness by pointing out that he has no constitutional position to be as demanding as he is of those vested with power but feels that people deserve ‘frankness’. Paxman also has little truck with this who advocate a gentler David Frost style approach to interviewing, suggesting that if politicians are too scared to face up to him, they really shouldn’t be climbing into the ring with Vladimir Putin on our behalf.
He concedes, however, that too much journalism is formulaic and driven by the fear of ‘missing out’ but is outright angered by the rise of what he calls the ‘parity of esteem’ bestowed on social media.
On the BBC, Paxo asks the simple question: ‘Would the world be a better place without it?”. And concludes that the answer has to be no. He is dismissive of what he sees as its overweight management, its overweening ‘mission to explain’ and even to some degree the manner in which it is funded but ultimately concludes that it, like the Britain it represents, is largely a force for good in the world.
It also emerges that JP is a closet Brexiteer, bluntly proclaiming the EU to be ‘remote’, ‘undemocratic’ and ‘useless’ adding further adjectives that drew from an audience defying every stereotype except perhaps age, an extended spell of applause. However, his ultimate conclusion was that the essential idea was a good one and it should have been reformed from within. Thus his havering pencil stub eventually alighted on the other box.
We learn too that Paxman was in many ways impressed by Clinton (B) but far less so by Clinton (H) whom he believes to have been blighted by ‘entitlement’. He would like to interview Donald Trump but wouldn’t have made Farage-ist bid for ambassadorship, believing that the biggest vote of confidence he could give the diplomatic service was that it had had the sense to turn him down many years previously.
At the end of both book and evening it’s hard to know what to conclude about ‘the real Jeremy’, the one separate from the attack dog with his teeth in some poor CEO or politician’s leg. That he’s a bit maudlin and prone to bouts of depression, he concedes himself. That he has a sharp mind somewhat constrained by the narrow lens of journalism and that this leaves him frustrated is possibly also true. But what you realise even after the the ostensibly revealing exercise of autobiography and interview is that you only really know what he allows you to. A man of many parts, faces, shades and moods. Just like most of us really. And to that fact too, he very willingly admits. And that is perhaps the greatest addition to his reputation.