Chair Ruth Wishart has a sharp and fearsome mind herself but she begins by stating that she has the ‘great and daunting’ pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Paxman for the next hour. Paxman is certainly someone few would enjoy being interviewed by and has spent a decent amount of his career on television repeating unanswered questions and wondering ‘Why is that lying bastard lying to me?’. It’s rumoured that some guests on Newsnight would spend their time in the green room contemplating prayer and wondering which of Paxman’s questions would be the most painful. Paxman sits back to listen to her introduction with an expression somewhere between smug and bemused.
Wishart asks if he is particularly fond of any of the interviews he’s conducted over the years and receives a firm no. Apparently Paxman doesn’t believe in being fond of things, or looking back at them. When Wishart points out that he’s written a book entirely composed of looking back he sighs and says, ‘Well, you could say that.’ He seems determined not to appear proud, repeating that he isn’t and that he feels inadequate until it becomes a mantra that grates rather than endears.
Despite his determination not to be proud, discussions of his career do fascinate and entertain. Ministers appearing on Newsnight would often arrive in a ministerial car but sometimes the studio would have to send a car for them. These occasions would often result in the driver mentioning to one of the staff that his passenger had been extremely nervous, or determined not to speak to Paxman about a particular topic. Of course this would immediately be relayed to Paxman who might then adjust his questioning to press that exact topic. Obfuscation can be just as revealing as frankness and Paxman has built a career on cutting through it.
He’s less sure about the people working in news now, feeling that often news is barely rehashed press releases or there is a lot of fuss about very little. Part of the problem comes from lack of resources. Newspapers in particular have been increasingly squeezed in recent years, hampering their ability to carry out proper journalistic investigation. Paxman has a separate issue with television news programs. He really wants to know why the newsreaders all stand up now. It seems to do nothing but create a false sense of urgency. Much of what they report has already happened and nothing can be done about it so there is no need for urgency.
There is one older institution of journalism that he would dearly love to burn down and that is the lobby system. He would also shut down a large number of Westminster offices. His problem with with the lobby system is that a journalist’s loyalty should be to their readership not their subjects. They should not all be sitting around deciding what the public should and should not know. As Paxman summarises: ‘Bollocks to that!’
When questions are opened to the audience the first focuses on the BBC pay row. While Paxman does think that it is obscene for anyone to be paid as much as the top stars have been, his comments on the gender gap are less enlightened. He feels that it’s just a market, if a bogus one, and it’s up to each individual to negotiate. His ‘bogus market’ neatly ignores that sexism is alive and well and often operating on a subconscious level even in those who think themselves above it. The female stars of the BBC could have had the best negotiation skills in the world and they would still have been paid less than their male co-star. Wishart sighs deeply at this and directs the event to the next question.
The topic of Trump arises, perhaps inevitably. Paxman did not get an opportunity to interview him in the run up to the election but there are some questions he would love to ask. His first question would be to ask if he was really lying during his ‘grabbing women by the pussies’ comments. The two possible answers being that Trump is either a molester or a liar. The second regards his feeling that it’s smart not to pay taxes, a comment Paxman declares utterly contemptible. Even more so now given the evidence that Trump has no qualms about spending tax dollars in vast quantities. Paxman pinpoints the trait that allowed Trump to succeed. In a time when there is profound disenchantment with the political classes, Trump had the appearance of being an ordinary bloke and he capitalised on that.
The event closes after an hour of fascinating back and forth between two very sharp minds. Wishart explains that Paxman will be signing copies of his book in the signing tent. She gives the directions as ‘left, and left again’ before turning to Paxman and commenting that is might be a strange journey for him, much to the delight of the still clapping audience.