I (and others) moan endlessly on Twitter about how dumbed down Newsnight has become, and about how lazy Jeremy Paxman's interviewing has become. Rather than dwelling on the negatives, I even tried to make some positive suggestions for helping Newsnight recover.
But I've had enough. Paxman is typically aggressive, provocative and rude. Sometimes smugly and smilingly condescending. And he almost always falls back on a small repertoire of tricks, such as "How can you say that when... [Report X has said something different]?", "Oh come off it!", "Do you agree with [ally Y] when he says...?", "Which is it: Yes or no?"
It's true that there are times when this style can help cut through flannel. But it's becoming overused and all too often reduces political discussion to something only slightly more grown-up than the Jeremy Kyle Show. A more clinical, well-briefed, forensic technique can actually help bring out weaknesses or implications of arguments that interviewees hadn't even considered. Think Andrew Neil at his best.
It's not just that Paxman's interviewing style is dated: He's also a particularly poor chair of discussions involving more than a few people. He fails to hide his contempt for particular people, parties and arguments. And he often seems unable to move on from trivial or superficial matters to the substance of an issue.
It doesn't have to be like this. I recently caught Channel 4 News for the first time in a long while (I'm not often available to watch television in the early evening) and the contrast with Newsnight was huge. Considered, probing, responsive. Everything Newsnight isn't, and should be. I also think Radio 4's The World at One and The World Tonight also get the journalism spot-on (although, again, I don't catch them as much as I'd like).
But Newsnight has always been the pre-eminent current affairs programme, so it has been hard to come to terms with its decline. It still holds a sway over many in politics, but I've come to believe that the trashing of serious discussion in favour of pantomime is doing our political discourse no favours.
To bolster my resolve, here are some Paxo moments of the past few years:
- Alex Salmond is like Robert Mugabe.
- George Osborne shovels shit.
- Newsnight's own correspondent Paul Mason is not credible.
- Interviewing Eurfyl ap Gwilym, in which Paxman seems to believe "The private sector is too weak" means "A weak private sector is sustainable" (it doesn't); the Plaid Cymru manifesto says "There should be no cuts in Wales." (it doesn't); "The funding formula for Wales is unfair" means "There should be no cuts in Wales" (it doesn't); "Wales receives more public funding per capita than any English region" (it doesn't); and that comparing Wales with other parts of the UK is both important and irrelevant.
- Repeatedly asking, with no finesse, a question that a Treasury minister clearly isn't allowed to answer.
- The BBC have censored almost all the internet clips of Paxman asking "Why is it the Greeks are so dishonest?" but you can probably find it on Google if you look hard enough. Here he is though, interrupting the President of Iceland to say "Don't trust an Icelander", asking Britain's UN ambassador "What's the difference between Zionism and racism?" and asking the Irish Finance Minister "Wouldn't your assertion be rather more plausible were this crisis not entirely the consequence of your own incompetence?"
- Finally, Paxman's wasted opportunities interviewing Richard Dawkins, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, etc. etc. etc.