The scene: the dormitory of a minor English public school. An officious prefect orders a small boy to get into bed. The boy refuses and is frog-marched off to the Headmaster’s Room. “Why didn’t you obey the prefect’s orders to get into bed?” asks the headmaster. “Because I don’t respect them,” answers the boy. “The purpose of a public-school education, Paxman”, intones the headmaster, producing a long cane, “is to teach you to respect things you don’t respect.”
Now spool forward a few decades to the present time. The BBC’s very own Jeremy Paxman sits in his small airless office to the side of the main Newsnight newsroom. Today he is preoccupied with the changes in the police force announced by the Home Secretary. He watches the monitor transmitting the Prime Minister’s statements, grumping and raising his eyebrows as one political platitude is followed by another. “That’s rubbish,” he says at one point, and it’s not clear whether he’s talking about the PM or some other issue burning a hole in his intellect.
Only months after its inception, Newsnight had already made itself a household name. Cajoling, intimidating, aggressive, revealing, persistent – Paxman comes across as the interviewer from hell, a newsman who refuses to learn to respect things he doesn’t respect. The programme’s editor admits that Paxman can be too “macho and Oxbridge” at times. But he’s still there, a thorn in the side of the establishment. And it doesn’t look like that thorn is going to be getting less sharp any time soon.
Newsnight has been called many things: “an important part of the democratic process”; “a traitor in our midst”; “dangerous”; “increasingly irrelevant”. For many years, we have been watching Paxman being attacked by politicians from all ranks for “sneering interviews”, or in such brutal confrontations as the one where he dealt with a politician’s evasive responses by asking him the same questions 14 times. He is clearly the man British politicians love to hate.
The public, however, remain loyal. On 4 June, 2001, a bruising encounter between the Prime Minister and Jeremy Paxman brought nearly 2,5 million viewers to Newsnight. The programme’s ongoing success is living proof that people expect current affairs programmes to be hard-hitting and truth-searching. Especially after the BBC scrapped News at Ten, the public have turned to Newsnight in their search for more serious analysis in a world of increasingly consumer-oriented news.
The programme is now twenty years old and Paxman, the most feared interviewer on British television, will remain dedicated to the original cause for the existence of Newsnight – asking politicians those tough questions that other current affairs programmes prefer not to. Sin Kevill, the editor who oversaw the programme’s relaunch last January, says it now has a broader, more accessible agenda – from the documentary-style films from poor inner-city areas to arts and culture. Will this modernisation negatively affect the programme’s depth? “Definitely not. I’m quite traditional,” Kevill says. “There are some things about Newsnight that will simply not change.”
The programme’s role as the nagging voice of the nation’s conscience is becoming more and more important. Viewers and listeners are increasingly overwhelmed by news, news, and more news. Those programmes, of necessity, lack the one thing Newsnight has - context. “There is a shortage of analysis and generally a lack of interest in whether people are telling the truth,” Paxman says, “Things rush on to television at a fantastic speed, get recycled, pushed out and not thought about again. It’s one big sausage machine. This is not how a nation should perceive events and developments that affect its everyday existence.”
In an ill-inspired attempt to make news more “accessible” to the public, the BBC made the surprising announcement last summer that a former game show host and radio presenter was to join the Newsnight team. Was Paxman surprised when he heard the announcement last August? “No.” “Why not?” “Because someone had phoned me to tell me about it.” He pauses. He knows he’s not answering the question. Was he surprised? “Mind your own business.” There is another long pause. “I think he is very good on the radio.” Whatever the personal feelings Paxman harboured, and they were obviously not ones of positive excitement, the deal seems to have fallen through, and the team remains unchanged.
Does Paxman ever think that he should change his style to something more in tune with the caring, sharing new millennium? Of course he doesn’t. “Any self-respecting journalist must be concerned to define for themselves what the important issue is and then to pursue it, and not blindly follow some line laid down by the vested interest in question.”
There have been discussions about a new, highbrow interview programme for Paxman in the style of his head-to-head with Bill Gates last October. It has even been reported that he has drawn up a list of people he would interview in that programme. This doesn’t mean, however, that he has any intention of retiring from Newsnight for a long time to come, not that he will somehow start respecting things he simple doesn’t respect.