Give the viewers a break, Paxman

You can’t hear some presenters without wishing they’d shut up

The Independent, Thursday 28 June 2012

So, Jeremy Paxman, do you know what day it is? Do you? It’s a simple enough question. On Tuesday, during an interview on Newsnight with the Treasury minister Chloe Smith, you asked: “What’s happened between the 23rd of May and today, which is what, the 25th of June?” Mr Paxman, shouldn’t a presenter on a salary most of us could only dream of know what day it is? Every child in the country knows that Tuesday was the 26th of June. Pathetic!

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. I’m just sick of interviews conducted in a style more appropriate to the Colosseum than a civilised country. On Newsnight and Radio 4′s Today programme, presenters swagger into interviews like lions about to devour cowering Christians. Paxman is the retiarius of interrogators, casting a net over his victims and giving them repeated jabs with his trident while they’re tangled up in words.

I think Smith did rather well to keep her temper in the face of a performance – I use the word deliberately – whose chief purpose seemed to be her humiliation. Paxman began with a question she was clearly not able to answer and kept repeating it, with all the incredulity of a prosecution lawyer confronting a wife-beater. It would have been mildly interesting to know when the Government made its decision to postpone an increase in fuel duty, but Smith’s reluctance to reveal confidential conversations wasn’t nearly as incriminating as Paxman made out.

Confrontation has become the dominant style of current-affairs programmes. I know and like John Humphrys but it’s impossible to listen to him, Paxman or Jonathan imbleby interrupting yet another politician without wishing they’d shut up. Often the interviewee is on the verge of saying something interesting when the interrogator decides it isn’t the answer he wants, and we get another fusillade of interruptions. It doesn’t make for a stimulating or informed debate.

But then I don’t think that’s the purpose. Gladiatorial contests are about one person coming out on top, and the interviewer has all the advantages. He doesn’t have to worry about breaking confidences or letting down colleagues, while appalling rudeness is excused as fearless pursuit of the truth. “That’s absolute tripe!” Paxman told the Italian journalist Annalisa Piras on Monday, dismissing her views on the Eurozone as though he were a Nobel-winning economist.

If Smith is smarting from her experience, she might want to consider this. When presenters harrumph and cut someone off mid-sentence, they think they’re showing intellectual rigour. But it’s really a boorish form of populism, which is just what the Colosseum audience loves.

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