Great reads

BBC jour­nal­ist and au­thor Jeremy Pax­man tells Shreeja Ravin­dranathan that some­times he does a good in­ter­view, some­times a bad…

Friday - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

Bri­tish award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, au­thor and tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Jeremy Pax­man on why he wants an­swers.

In the jour­nal­is­tic world bbC news­man Jeremy pax­man is fe­ro­cious. Fir­ing from both bar­rels, his trade­mark tac­tic to grill and swiftly wither bri­tish politi­cians and West­min­ster big­wigs on the bbC’s News­night makes for un­com­fort­able, but in­trigu­ing view­ing.

Re­mem­ber watch­ing pax­man in­fa­mously ask the then Con­ser­va­tive home sec­re­tary Michael howard the same ques­tion 12 times in suc­ces­sion dur­ing a News­night in­ter­view? Whether you saw it on tV back in 1997 – and prob­a­bly joined in a cho­rus of ‘just an­swer the ques­tion’ as pax­man per­sisted – or you are one of 600,000 people who re­cently viewed the tirade on youtube, it’s now con­sid­ered glob­ally as a leg­endary mo­ment in broad­cast jour­nal­ism by crit­ics and au­di­ences alike.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that pax­man has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a Rot­tweiler. he was once voted the fourth scari­est per­son on bri­tish tV – si­mon Cow­ell came 10th and chef gor­don Ram­say topped the list – by read­ers of the Ra­dio

Times. but un­like Cow­ell and Ram­say, he’s not mean to boost tV rat­ings. No, pax­man wants an­swers.

“the key thing that dis­tin­guishes jour­nal­ists from the rest of the cit­i­zens of their coun­try is not that they have any spe­cial en­ti­tle­ment but they have op­por­tu­nity,” he says.

“you should make damn sure that you use it for the ben­e­fit of those who don’t and pur­sue it un­til you get an an­swer. or else it’s clear enough to the aver­age in­tel­li­gent spec­ta­tor that an an­swer hasn’t been given.”

but how does he feel about his no­to­ri­ety? “If you ask me, I’m just a hack – some­times I do a good in­ter­view, some­times I do a bad in­ter­view. even with books some­times as a de­cent writer you feel you’ve cap­tured some­thing to the best of your abil­ity. but it’s for oth­ers to choose if any­thing’s worth­while or not, isn’t it?”

pax­man’s in­ter­view with co­me­dian and ac­tor Rus­sell brand took cen­tre stage re­cently thanks to its caus­tic ver­bal spar­ring spat­tered with dry wit. It cer­tainly made for good tV.

this tele­vised hec­tor­ing has earned pax­man some­thing akin to a celebrity sta­tus in bri­tain. the tabloids are

wait­ing to pounce. And last year they did af­ter his de­ci­sion to grow a beard set cy­berspace on fire. The beard is now miss­ing. “I’m not go­ing to be dis­hon­est and I am aware of the whole celebrity thing,” he says. “How­ever, I’d be a fool if I took it se­ri­ously.”

With the ta­bles turned, Pax­man makes an easy-go­ing in­ter­vie­wee. But that was prob­a­bly be­cause when we meet he’s still rev­el­ling in the suc­cess of his ses­sion at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture on his lat­est book – Great Bri­tain’s Great War (2013).

The au­di­ence hung on his ev­ery word. “Writ­ers are of­ten quite soli­tary crea­tures, so it is fan­tas­tic to see them all here in Dubai,” he says. “Talk­ing to read­ers who all have their own ideas of­ten makes you think about things in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way, which is great.”

Coin­cid­ing with the cen­te­nary of the First World War, Pax­man’s lat­est book pre­ceded a five-part BBC TV doc­u­men­tary se­ries an­chored by Pax­man and aired in Jan­uary in the UK. The in­spi­ra­tion for the book came from hav­ing lost his great-un­cle Char­lie to the war. “I never knew him, but his loss was a con­stant re­minder in our lives in the form of the pho­to­graph that hung in the house,” says Pax­man. “It made me won­der how many other un­cle Char­lies were lost to an event that had such a big im­pact on our na­tion and what life was like back then.”

The metic­u­lously re­searched book out­lines the ex­panse of the four-year war from it’s ini­tial stages, the causes be­hind it and how it af­fected cit­i­zens as in­di­vid­u­als, rather than as a vague po­lit­i­cal event. Pax­man doesn’t con­done

‘Writ­ers are of­ten quite soli­tary crea­tures so it is fan­tas­tic to see them all here in Dubai’

war but he does turn the gen­eral opin­ion of it as a tragic waste of young soldiers’ lives on its head, by ex­am­in­ing how the war changed the im­pe­rial his­tory of a Bri­tain and how the sense of duty, pa­tri­o­tism and self­less­ness that pre­vailed was an im­por­tant fac­tor be­hind what people did next.

He is happy to de­scribe him­self as a pa­triot al­though not the “jin­go­is­tic kind”. Pax­man’s in­nate in­ter­est in what it means to be Bri­tish and what ac­tu­ally con­sti­tutes the Bri­tish iden­tity runs as ma­jor themes through his pre­vi­ous books. Right from The English: A por­trait

of a People (2007), The Vic­to­ri­ans (2009)

and Em­pire: What Rul­ing the World Did

To The Bri­tish (2011). The con­clud­ing lines of Great Bri­tain’s Great War gives a sense that Pax­man seems a lit­tle miffed with his coun­try still be­ing stuck in the im­pe­rial past and dwelling on the wide-flung em­pire they lost out on af­ter the war. Ask him if that’s true and he’s all tooth and nail. “No I don’t mean that! See, you’ve just dis­torted it,” he says. “My ar­gu­ment is not that they’re stand­ing still or liv­ing back there but that they’re mov­ing for­wards with their head point­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion.”

Mov­ing for­wards, but look­ing back­wards isn’t a tenet Pax­man ap­plies to him­self. “The real prob­lem with life is you can only un­der­stand it when you look back­wards but you have to live it look­ing for­wards,” he says. “Look­ing back, I can see how very for­tu­nate that I was this round peg in a round hole.”

Born in Leeds in 1950 to Joan and Arthur, as the el­dest of four chil­dren Pax­man doesn’t see any par­tic­u­lar fa­mil­ial in­flu­ences that paved his path to jour­nal­ism ex­cept for a healthy, happy child­hood and in­her­ent cu­rios­ity with “an in­cli­na­tion and in­stinct rather than a mat­ter of train­ing” thrown in.

“I think you only re­ally need two things to be­come a jour­nal­ist – you need to like words and en­joy play­ing with them,” he says “The key thing is you’ve got to be cu­ri­ous.”

Af­ter study­ing English Lit­er­a­ture at St Cather­ine’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, Pax­man was em­ployed as a re­porter on the BBC’s trainee-pro­gramme in 1972, which saw him dab­ble in ra­dio and then don the garb of for­eign cor­re­spon­dent reporting the trou­bles in North­ern Ire­land and later from Cen­tral Amer­ica, Beirut and Zim­babwe (amongst oth­ers) when he was on BBC’s Panorama cur­rent af­fairs pro­gramme.

But on the lighter side he has also hosted the BBC quiz show Univer­sity

Chal­lenge for the past 20 years. “I do it for fun,” he says. “I like stu­dents. I’m amazed by what they learn and amazed by what they don’t know.” Join­ing the News­night team in 1989 marked the start of his trail­blaz­ing as a grand in­quisi­tor, mak­ing him a house­hold name be­cause of his in­tense in­ter­view­ing style. The ques­tion re­mains, is he per­sis­tent or just plain rude? “I don’t buy this rude­ness ar­gu­ment; I don’t think I’m rude. I think I’m di­rect.” And what about his crit­ics?

“You’ve got to do what you be­lieve to be right,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve got many, many, many things wrong. And quite of­ten I go home and think ‘gosh you’ve made a mess of that!’ You know you just try to do bet­ter next time. And people do some­times say un­kind things, well you’ve just got to live with it, you’ve got to be true to yourself.”

Up close it’s easy to be­lieve he har­bours no in­ten­tional mal­ice. But on nudg­ing him on his po­lit­i­cal views he’s in­cred­u­lously amused. “Do you think I’m com­pletely mad? Do you think sit­ting here I’m go­ing to tell you what my po­lit­i­cal be­liefs are? You must think I was born yes­ter­day!,” he says, be­fore adding. “I have over the years voted for all man­ner of po­lit­i­cal par­ties. And I don’t know how I will vote next time. ”

De­spite nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades to his name such as a BAFTA for Out­stand­ing Pre­sen­ter in the Fac­tual Arena (1996) and the Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety TV

‘The real prob­lem with life is that you can only un­der­stand it when you look back­wards’

Jour­nal­ism Pre­sen­ter of the Year (2002, 2007) Pax­man dis­likes tak­ing jour­nal­ism too se­ri­ously. “It’s just a tacky old trade – you know you’re do­ing a job on be­half of or­di­nary people hold­ing pow­er­ful people to ac­count, that’s all,” he says.

The only prob­lem he sees with jour­nal­ism is that no one in news knows what the fu­ture holds, “Whether it’s books, mag­a­zines, print, tele­vi­sion or ra­dio, any­one who tells you they know for cer­tain is a fan­ta­sist,” he says.

His views on re­spected jour­nal­ists in­dulging in re­al­ity TV shows such as the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing are no a se­cret. “I would want my head ex­am­ined to go on one,” he says.

But even Pax­man can’t deny the ex­cite­ment of his ‘trade’. “It’s a fan­tas­tic trade – you meet loads and loads of people you have no other op­por­tu­nity to meet,” he says. “On the whole, it’s pretty in­ter­est­ing and I’ve been very lucky. I’m not sure I want my kids to go into it,” he says, quickly warn­ing, “I never talk about my chil­dren so it’s a fig­u­ra­tive thing.”

He’s fiercely pro­tec­tive of the pri­vacy of his home life in Oxfordshire with long-term part­ner and BBC pro­ducer El­iz­a­beth Clough and their three chil­dren. Next ques­tion!

Con­sid­er­ing his flair for bring­ing past events to life, is fic­tional sto­ry­telling on the cards? “I doubt it very much,” he says. “I have tried fic­tion and not been very suc­cess­ful frankly. I might oc­ca­sion­ally use it to try to tell a story. But it prob­a­bly re­quires a dif­fer­ent set of skills from the ones that I have.”

Mov­ing on, what does Pax­man like to do when he’s not bring­ing politi­cians and celebri­ties to their knees on tele­vi­sion. “Well I usu­ally give in­ter­views to Fri­day mag­a­zine,” he says, batting an­other ques­tion to the floor, be­fore of­fer­ing: “I’m very keen on fly-fish­ing when it’s the sea­son for that – I’ve even writ­ten a book on it.”

So does he ever watch tele­vi­sion? “For the news, yes,” he says. “But other­wise, not much, no. Do you?”

There’s no sup­press­ing the cu­ri­ous in­ter­roga­tor in him, is there? “I’m just nat­u­rally cu­ri­ous. I can’t look at any­thing with­out ques­tion­ing it. I’ll al­ways be that way.” And so his quest for an­swers continues.

Pax­man says he’s ask­ing ques­tions on be­half of or­di­nary people

Pax­man and rus­sell Brand cross ver­bal swords…

great reads the key thing about in­ter­view­ing is to be cu­ri­ous, says Pax­man

Pax­man is the au­thor of nine books

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