The consensus on the web appears to be that Chloe Smith's Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman yesterday evening was a disaster. I take the minority view, shared by the Guardian's Michael White, that she did about as well as she could in the circumstances. Any blame due for her performance lies with Conservative command for not briefing her better or fielding a bigger beast in the first place.
It was Paxman's performance that concerned me more. I stand by what I wrote about him in Liberal Democrat News in November 2010:
Wealthy, arrogant, members of powerful dynasties... It is not the politicians we should worry about these days so much as the interviewers.
Take the biggest cheese of them all: Jeremy Paxman. Politicians are not brought before him to have their views examined: they are there to suffer a form of ritual contempt. Forget any ideas of a sustained line of questioning designed to probe and elucidate his interviewees’ views. What he offers is sneering, snarling and attempts to catch his victims off guard.
Paxo acts as a channel for our hatred of the political class. It is all great fun, but contempt for democratically elected politicians is not the mark of a mature democracy. It is the stock in trade of fascists or, to be less melodramatic, of fruitcakes like UKIP in Britain or the Tea Party in America.
And there are alternatives. For better or worse, the days when Brian Walden on Weekend World could act like a kindly but irascible professor faced with a bright student are long gone. They are part of that lost era when a Marxist Play for Today could gain 14 million viewers – chiefly because there was little else to watch. But some people do it better even now. For all his silly guests and references to Blue Nun, Andrew Neil can be a devastating interviewer. I once heard him, with forensic politeness, draw from Michael Gove the fact that his adoptive parents had paid for him to attend one of the most expensive private schools in Scotland.
This mattered because in those days Gove was widely assumed to be a state-educated moth among the Brideshead butterflies of the Cameron front bench. After this interview I saw him in a new light – even if, unfashionably for a Liberal Democrat, I am still an enthusiast for his ‘free schools’.
Jeremy Paxman, by contrast is most famous for asking Michael Howard the same question 14 times. And he still didn’t get an answer.