Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The problem is not Chloe Smith but Jeremy Paxman

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.
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Anonymous said...

Interestingly she got better towards the end.

Yep Paxman is out of order. Patronising, rude, arrogant.

Given C4 had a go at her, at what point does it become bullying?

EJB said...

Good post. David Mitchell published a video in which he made this same point about Paxo and the excessive cynicism of the media a couple of years ago

Anonymous said...

Fiddle faddle: there have been plenty of interviews where politicians have stonewalled Andrew Neil (note spelling). One was Lady Warsi failing to answer Neil on whether the Conservative membership numbers had risen or fallen. This was exactly the same as Paxman's interview with Howard. No difference at all.

Smith was humiliated because she refused to say a) when the decision had been taken - because that would have embarrassed the government b) where the money would come from to pay for it - because that would have embarrassed the government (and/or she didn't know) and c) that the U-turn was designed to help voters out/stimulate the economy because she'd said the opposite before - because that would have embarrassed the government.

Her sole (attempted) function in this interview was to a) stonewall and b) try to avoid embarrassment to the government. She wasn't answering in good faith so she deserved precisely what she got from Paxman. End of story.

Jonathan Calder said...

Spelling duly noted.

Unknown said...

I think they're probably both the problem. Paxmans method is to sneer from the start, expect the person in front of you to be an idiot (compared to his enormous brain) and get to the end with his 'opponent' humiliated. He does it with everybody and it was quite amusing once, but it got old a long time ago. But Smith was rubbish too. She could have told the truth from the off and would have avoided the whole debacle. When politicians (of all hues) start talking like normal people, instead of whatever language she was speaking, then maybe Paxman will actually have to engage in a proper debate with them. As it is we now have the worst of both worlds, politicians and (more importantly) politics sneered at and no proper answers being given (or "gotten"!).

Mark said...

Agreed - good post.

It's time a politician called Paxman out - really went for aggressively him with a vengeance. Sadly no one seems to have the bottle to do so.

Unknown said...

Mark - here's quite a good one:

See the bit around 2 mins 15 secs esp.

Lon Won said...

Newsnight needed an editor to rein in Paxman's excesses. Peter Rippon encouraged them.

Now Peter Rippon has had to step aside, pending an inquiry; and the BBC's Director General has resigned over Newsnight's poor editorial standards.

You were right, Lord B. You and I were isolated voices on the real significance of the Chloe Smith mauling.