Friday, November 05, 2010

Calder on Air: Jeremy Paxman is Steerforth

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News. I am told my set was working beautifully in the repair shop earlier this week. I shall pick it up from the shop tomorrow. Perhaps it just needed a holiday.

Asking the Questions

Calder on Air should have appeared last week, but I wasn’t well and then my television set fell ill too. For a couple of days I put up with the blue faces and purple grass, reasoning that I must have OD’d on Day Nurse, but in the end I realised something was wrong and sent it back for repair.

Living without a TV not the radical step it was when I did it for several years back in the 1990s. These days you can watch on line, catch up with the BBC iPlayer or a DVD into your computer. But I did take the opportunity to think a little more widely about television and politics.

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.


The Genius of British Art (Channel 4) has been a good series, and Howard Jacobsen’s essay on Victorian art and sexuality was valuable in helping to overturn the absurd view of the 19th century that many still have. The Victorians did not cover piano legs because they found them shocking: that was a joke they told at the expense of the straitlaced Americans.

But if there is a worse factual programme this year than Janet Street Porter’s discussion of modern British art I hope I do not have the misfortune to watch it. All we learnt in the course of an hour was a) she enjoys hanging out with famous people and b) cannot talk for more than 30 seconds without blatantly contradicting herself.


Being without a television has driven me back to my bookshelves, and I have found a literary equivalent of Jeremy Paxman. He is Steerforth from David Copperfield.

Having learnt from the innocent young hero that one of the masters at Salem House has a mother in the poor house, Steerforth uses the information to publicly humiliate him and secure his dismissal.

No doubt that made him as popular with his fellow pupils as Paxo is with viewers. But I am with Tommy Traddles, the conscience of the novel: “Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!”


Lavengro in Spain said...

The point you don't make, but which is implicit, is that the media run the country. They overrule the politicians. The opposition that holds the government to account is in the media not in Parliament, and the government dare not act without wondering whether the media will approve.

That is not democracy as we know it.

mimpromptu said...

Although it’s good to see Jeremy called Steerforth
I’m not so sure about the conclusions put forward
By you, Mr Calder.
It looks like you’re confusing bacon with beacon
As the future of the UK needs to be made brighter
And not run by doggies, piggies and jealously greedy.