BBC journalist and author Jeremy Paxman tells Shreeja Ravindranathan that sometimes he does a good interview, sometimes a bad…
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.
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great reads the key thing about interviewing is to be curious, says Paxman
Paxman is the author of nine books