Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sack Paxman

Last night Twitter was abuzz with the "car crash" interview of Treasury minister Chloe Smith. People were still tweeting and blogging about it this afternoon. With my usual excellent timing, by now there will be no-one left on the planet with even the vaguest interest in clicking through to yet more comment on that interview.

So well done on making it this far. And here goes...

I agree entirely with Richard Morris' succinct review of why Chloe Smith had no excuse.However, I want to focus on Jeremy Paxman. I've blogged previously about why I no longer watch Newsnight when he's presenting. But I would now go further than that. I think he deserves to be sacked.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by englishpen
Not for this interview in particular. It was quite legitimate for him to be asking when the decision to delay the fuel duty rise was taken, why Smith appeared to have changed her mind about the issue, how the measure would be funded, and why this measure took priority over reducing the deficit.

And not because of his bullying approach per se. His technique last night was no worse than Paxman has deployed many times before; and although I detest the default attitude to politicians of "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?", it is sometimes necessary to deploy an aggressive approach to try to cut through obfuscation about very serious matters.

No, I think he should be sacked because he is incompetent. And this interview illustrates this perfectly.

Before the interview, we already knew that the decision was a last-minute one. We also knew that it would mostly be funded by departmental under-spends, but that it wasn't yet clear how much would be taken from each department.

So what could a good journalist realistically hope to achieve in this interview? I would suggest that the five key things we would have liked to have found out are:
  1. What are the justifications for the Government changing its mind?
  2. At a particular moment when tax receipts are sharply down and borrowing sharply up, why wouldn't the money be better spent reducing the deficit?
  3. How does this decision square with the Prime Minister's boast that his will be "the greenest government ever"?
  4. Why was the decision so last-minute?
  5. When will it be known which departments are to experience budget cuts as a consequence of this decision?
A smart interviewer - such as Jon Snow, Robin Lustig or Andrew Neil - might well have started with questions that a Treasury minister should be able to answer, following up with thoughtful questions that attempt to tease out ambiguities and gaps in the logic. It's true that there might be times when an interviewee can be unsettled by a relentless, aggressive, opening attack; but overusing such a technique means that future interviewees will be resolute in sticking rigidly to their talking points.

Instead, sensing the weakness of the Government's position on the decision, Paxman set out to entertain the audience with the ritual humiliation of a minister:
  • He asked Smith about 10 times "When were you told about the decision?" (or words to that effect)
  • He repeatedly shouted, hectored and interrupted Smith.
  • He asked an excessive number of questions phrased in such a way as to humiliate rather than to elicit serious responses, including:
    • "Is it hard for you to defend a decision you don't agree with?"
    • "Is this some sort of joke?"
    • "Did you get the sums wrong?"
    • "Do you ever wake up in the morning and think 'My God, what am I going to be told today? '"
    • "Do you ever think you're incompetent?"
To be fair, Smith could have made a much better fist of responding. After all, a decision to delay a tax rise is hardly the most difficult position to defend in politics. She needed to keep pivoting back to "Hard-working people and businesses aren’t interested in the process. They're interested in the outcome, which is the Government listening to how badly people have been harmed by Labour's deficit, and so we're taking the right decision to ameliorate Labour's taxes. This will help people who commute to work, people who travel because of their jobs, people who live in the country..." Of course that's easy for me to say. It's not so easy to do it under the hot lights and the sneer of a boorish interviewer. But that's her job, so I'm not overly concerned about that. And she'd already been through one interview earlier in the evening, so she knew what questions were very likely to come up!

So how well did Paxman do? Of the "five key things we would have liked to have found out" I identified earlier, how many did we gain information about?

And this interview isn't an isolated case.

If it turns out that BBC News is actually a subdivision of BBC Entertainment, then Paxman's bosses should be rightly proud of his continuing ability to attract attention. On the other hand, Nick Clarke, Vincent Hanna and Charles Wheeler will be turning in their graves.

What mark would you give Paxman?


  1. Some years ago, I worked in drug treatment services. My then-wife worked in television. We were sat watching a TV debate on drugs policy, and there was a clear polarisation of "expert" opinion on the show: one policy wonk in favour of drug legalisation, another in favour of shock-sentencing, zero tolerance etc. The debate (unsurprisingly) was emotive and full of hyperbole, on both sides. "More heat than light", as they say.
    I fumed. "This is pointless!" I shouted at the TV, "this does NOTHING to move intelligent debate on in drugs policy."
    "It's not designed to," my more pragmatic wife sighed, "it's designed to make people watch the programme. And you're still watching it."
    If Paxman's job was to play the role of opposition, then yes - his approach in the Chloe Smith interview might be questioned, and his focus seen to be missing the bigger points. But that isn't his job. His job is to create exactly the sort of "car crash tv" that people watch, keep watching, and virally circulate (as indeed they did.) And at THAT job, Paxman is excellent.
    I'm not saying I LIKE this particular reality, by the way, but sadly, reality it is.

  2. I'm sure you're right Simon.

    On the one hand this style of television attracts people into thinking about political issues, people who might not otherwise have engaged in the issues at all. But on the other hand it genuinely dumbs down our political discourse to the level of slogan, personality and insult.

    I don't know which is worse: lack of engagement or entirely superficial engagement... :-(

  3. In a similar vein, Michael White of the Guardian, goes out on a limb in questioning the value of Paxman's approach.

    Meanwhile William Brett argues that "anti-politics" in British journalism is becoming a serious problem.

    Finally, Jonathan Calder has posted a timely reminder of observations he has made about Jeremy Paxman:

    "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."