Rod Liddle

Without Paxman, the BBC will have just one interrogator: John Humphrys

I suppose he’ll be replaced with someone who is nicer to politicians. It’s a shame

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

In a double blow for the beleaguered BBC, the corporation has lost three of its most compelling attractions in little more than a month: the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, and Susanna Reid’s legs. Paxman has said he has had enough and announced his retirement from the thinly viewed current affairs programme. Susanna Reid’s legs have made their way over to ITV for its even more thinly viewed breakfast show called ‘Phwoar, Wake Up and Have a Look At This’ or whatever. The legs have attracted criticism for spending a substantial proportion of the show hidden from view under a desk while the rest of Susanna Reid jabbered about something with a slight smirk on her face in full view of the camera. It is possible that Ms Reid prefers it this way — in which case, as a compromise, it might be best if the legs were detached from the rest of her and placed in a glass display case on the table alongside, where we might all enjoy them. I am not privy to her contract with ITV so cannot be sure that this would meet with the agreement of all parties, however, it seems a sensible option to me. The rest of Susanna Reid could then carry on being a ‘serious journalist’ and even take part in the Paralympics if she so wished and would put in a modicum of training.

Paxman is a different issue; I have seen his legs and they are fine, noble specimens, but they are going with the rest of him into the television retirement lounge of Nice Documentaries. He has done 25 years at Newsnight and I think it is fair to say that he is the main reason a million or so people watch the programme. But the BBC is a strange and perverse organisation and Paxman has never fitted into it terribly well as a presenter. Successive director-generals — who are, by definition, part of an establishment which Paxman disdains — have considered the chap a ‘problem’, much as they consider the BBC’s other interrogative interviewer (yes, it had two — now it has just one), John Humphrys.

When I was editor of the Today programme, for which Humphrys still works,  it was made clear that there was a ‘Humphrys problem’, just as over at television there was a ‘Paxman problem’. The two journalists were considered overly aggressive with our elected representatives, and guilty of holding the polity in a sneering contempt. Plenty of executives bought into the thesis, promulgated by the Blairite journalist John Lloyd, that this sort of approach to interviewing had a corrosive effect upon democracy, and other such pompous drivel. Whereas in fact it was a reaction to a development in modern politics which really did have a corrosive effect upon democracy, i.e. the rise of spin-doctoring, PR mentoring and the central office control of politicians — all of which began under Margaret Thatcher but was taken to exciting new heights with the arrival in office of Tony Blair in 1997.

I suspect that the executives, and one or two director-generals — on more than nodding terms with successive political administrations — also resented the immense popularity of the likes of Paxman and Humphrys, and the fact that they were much better known to the general public than they were themselves. Luckily, this was also an excellent reason they couldn’t be quietly got rid of. So they continued to grate on the nerves of those running the corporation, and there were regular missives from above saying that ‘John went too far in that interview with Gordon Brown’ and so on, when the truth is that  for the listener, suffering through a rehearsed spiel of abject, meaningless bilge from the politician, ‘John’ did not go nearly far enough.

It is thought that Paxman did not get on terribly well with his new editor, the charming and ineffably bien-pensant metro-left-wing ex-Guardianista, Ian Katz. This is the man who, while at the Guardian, you may remember, attempted to persuade the voters of a swing state in the US not to vote for George W. Bush by getting famous middle-class left-wing Brits, such as Lady Antonia Fraser, to write personal letters to the electorate. As any normal person might imagine, this was viewed as offensive and patronising by almost everyone who read these letters, including the Democrats. I assume Katz buys into the Lloyd thesis about Paxman being corrosive to democracy, as I assume does the BBC’s new head of news, James Harding.

According to a friend of Katz, the Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade, it was absolutely right that Paxman should go, because he ‘often appeared bored with the task of interviewing people, treating them either with disdain or a kind of synthetic hostility’. Certainly, there have been no reports of either Katz and Harding prostrating themselves on bended knee to persuade Paxman to change his mind; it seems that Paxman’s decision was greeted with equanimity, if not cheering from the rooftops.

And so, I suppose you might argue, one of the dwindling reasons to like the BBC and support the licence fee has been kicked away. I wonder who they will get to replace him at Newsnight? Someone less cynical and nasty, someone with a consensual approach to the issue of governance. Ugh.

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Show comments
  • Cotswold1066

    The only thing the BBC seams to do well these days is shoot itself in the foot.

  • Mike Power

    Editor, never heard of paragraph tags?

  • Muggy Dog

    It’s curious that in the Radio Times, this weeks edition no less, Katz is awash with accolades for Paxman, including ‘Jeremy absolutely leads the show, He’s brilliant’. So either he lacks sincerity or he’s clueless, take your pick.

  • tribalterror

    No doubt Katz is lining up Owen Jones or Russell Brand

    • Picquet

      Thanks for making the next ten minutes stressful.

    • rtj1211

      Owen Jones would last about 4 weeks before the people who actually watch Newsnight tell the new Chair of the BBC Trust that their reputation as a serious broadcasting channel is in mortal danger……….

      • ‘their reputation as a serious broadcasting channel is in mortal danger’

        Not really an issue. That boat sailed, over the horizon, sunk and at the bottom of the Marinas Trench.

  • Jambo25

    Eddie Mair and Andrew Neil are much better interviewers than Paxman or Humphrys. They are much more dangerous to the interviewee than Paxo. To see how ineffective Paxman can be watch a couple of interviews he did with Salmond. He lets his own feelings intrude and Salmond runs rings round him.

    • Alexsandr

      eddit mair is good on PM. he is quietly insistent. but not the screeching caroline quentin.

      • mikewaller

        He, too, can still be a childish idiot. He interviewed David Mellor in the wake of the appalling Max Clifford being jailed. Mellor had a lot of interesting things to say including the bit about the Chelsea strip being a complete nonsense which had been rejected by the Mirror as such and which had already touted in respect of somebody else, in their case the strip being Everton’s. He also said that Clifford rarely got in at the ground floor, preferring to pounce on a story which he saw as having tabloid potential and then lard it up with lies as above. Mellors was sure that the editors knew exactly what was going on but loved the additional circulation created and, like Clifford, relied on the fact that any competent lawyer would advise a victim that if the core of the story was true, it was a waste of time suing over the trimmings.

        Altogether it was a very interesting piece showing what scumbags the Murdoch press were/are, it was significantly “marred” by dear old EM repeatedly asking Mellors whether he would be drinking a toast to Clifford’s imprisonment that night. Very sensibly, Mellors said he would not.

  • munch58

    Just shows how out of touch with the going on’s Liddle is. Reid left more than a month ago when the pushy girl demanded a programme of her own (the BBC had already done so for he colleagues Minchin, Raworth, Bruce, Williams and Silverton) but the BBC had never thought she was up to having one and that was endorsed by her me, me, me attitude on Strictly which left her alienated with most of cast and crew and as we have seen on Good Morning the initial ratings of 800k falling to 330k in a week shows they were right. Paxman actually resigned the best part of a year ago but agreed with the BBC to stay on (which considering his sycophantic interview with the disgraced Paul Flowers was a mistake…) so they poached Laura Kuenssberg back from ITV as a ready replacement. Where might we see Paxman again? maybe a labour party candidate on a safe “women only” seat?…

    • Liz

      Girl? She’s a 42 year old mother for goodness sake.

      • Terry Field

        Wot are you, young or something?

        • Liz

          I’m sure this is relevant somehow, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how.

          • Terry Field

            Age is relative; you being a clear ignorant juvenile would consider a whipper snapper of 42 as being antique and therefore not a girl. You being a squirt, that would be the case.
            Get it little infant lizzie?????
            No, probably not.

  • CraigStrachan

    What about Andrew Neil?

  • Liz

    Aggressive interrogation is a pretty poor way of getting information out of people. They reveal more when you’re nice to them.

    • Picquet

      Of course they do. Have a fairy cake.

      • Liz

        Who tells you more – your friends or your enemies?

        • Picquet

          Deeply unsettled enemies rather more than confident “friends”.

          • Liz

            I can see why you put friends in inverted commas.

          • Picquet

            Now I’m hurt.

  • Al

    Paxman is all bluff, bluster and bullying. There are far sharper interviewers out there.

    • Picquet


      • Al

        Andrew Neil for one.

        • Picquet

          Yes, true, but as John Lea says, if Liddle could frown convincingly, and sneer like Paxman, I’d be keen on his elevation to the post.

  • tastemylogos

    I’m sorry but Andrew Neil is a rottweiler. That man is well briefed,clued up and dispassionate. Good stuff. When he goes (Can’t be long) it is over for the BBC as a serious platform to holding our elites to account.

    Jo Coburn and her smug ‘I’ll have the last word despite the previous 10 minutes being repeatedly told I am wrong’. Shudder.

    • Terry Field

      Do you not mean ‘our mediocrities to account’????

  • John Lea

    There’s an obvious replacement right under our noses – Rod Liddle! If nothing else, his interviews with Harriet Harman would be a laugh.

    • Terry Field

      Nothing about Harriet Harman is in the least lunny. Nothing at all.

    • Liz

      I’d prefer Harriet Harman. Her interviews of Rod Liddle would be cathartic.

      • balance_and_reason

        She doesn’t need the money; caked up.

  • I think Charlie Stayt of BBC Breakfast Time would do a fine job. Also his co-pilot Naga Munchetty. Both are brilliant and very well briefed. I’d like to see a fresh face on Newsnight. Paxo was great but he was also clearly bored. Eddie Mair gets much more out of pols; he’s utterly deadly with that faux charm of his. A shout-out also for Paddy O’Connell.

  • Terry Field

    Susanna Reid was a self-satisfied PITB. Her exit to the dreadful breakfast offering from the commercial lot is a blessing. Paxo however was a sad change that leaves the Beeb reduced, from an already calamitous low. It is so BLAND, safe, PC, and tediously propagandising I look to other channels more and more – and many are not British either.
    Now if they had bottled Crumbleby and the dreadful Snowmen, then THAT would have ben a WIN.

  • mikewaller

    The piece makes clear why folks like me felt your being given the “Today” job was, as events proved, a disaster in the making. It is bad enough that dear old Rup has turned much of our printed media into daily adrenaline-fests, but for that to happen to “Today” was very much a degregation too far. What we need if politicians in this county are to get the degree of public understanding necessary to work our way through some pretty complex issues, is a style of interviewing that at least allows them to get the issues across. With Humphrys, all we get is an infantile pissing contest in which his massively inflated ego drives him to seek to derail whatever it is the politico is trying to put over.

    That does not mean that interviewers should give “soft” interviews, but it does mean that cheap point-scoring should be off limits. To put in another way, interviewers should be required to display the kind of courteous respect that Humphrys routinely affords to, of all people, Sinn Fein representatives and those who speak for the Murdoch press. For example, HMV Trevor Kavanagh is treated as though he were a prince of the royal blood.

    It would also be a very good idea if they did not pander to popular opinion. For example, in the run up to the Iraq war, Ann Clywd spoke in favour, citing several horror stories concerning the victims of Sadam Hussein’s murderous cruelty. I wrote suggesting what I called the “Ann Clywd question” be put to those vehemently opposing our involvement. Was it? Was it thump!

    • MC73

      A “style of interviewing that allows them to get the issues across” would just be a style of interviewing that allows politicians to stick to their line, to answer questions other than the ones they were asked and to get away with their usual bullshit and obfuscation. They have very little interest in explaining complex issues; after all a person with understanding of any matter may well make up his or her mind in an unapproved fashion.

      I’m sure Ann Clywd is overjoyed with the results of our intervention in Iraq. No longer is Saddam unable to inflict murderous cruelty anymore, a few hundred thousand Iraqis have been put beyond the reach of any cruelty.

      • mikewaller

        I have had my say, you have had yours and now I am back again. That is all I really want for politicians. And it is most certainly not what they get from Humphrys. Frankly I cry for a guy who will give them enough rope – if appropriate – to hang themselves and then come back coolly to point this out. Humphrys just chops what they want to say up and we all get nowhere. No judge would tolerate his style of cross examination. The guy is an egomaniac.

        As for Ann Clywd and Iraq, the actual out-turn is immaterial. She had a valid point of view and it should have been given full consideration. That, in the event, so many of the Iraqis proved to be murderous lunatics is pure hindsight in relation to what was happening when the invasion was under consideration. After all we had defeated both Germany and Japan in the field and things had turned out well with them. To have suggested otherwise in respect of those living in the Middle East would have seemed pure racism.

        • MC73

          If TV political interviews were to go as you suggest, what would happen is this:
          Interviewer: Please justify/explain why the government/opposition is doing X?
          MP: I’m glad you asked me that… *10 minutes of answering another question altogether/denying the question is valid/talking about how bad the oppo is*… groan bore fart etc”
          Interviewer: So, that’s all we have time for…

          I appreciate your point, but I don’t think it will ever work and it is politicians and their bullshit, not hacks and their egos which has got us here. As well as the practicalities and time schedules of TV/radio news.

          • mikewaller

            Is it not just possible that the intricacies of running as large a country as this actually deserves that degree of time and attention? There was a time when the public were prepared to take that kind of interest. I have a vague recollection of Gladstone having spoken to a very large crowd for about 2 hours 30 minutes; and somewhere I have a copy of the Daily Mirror from the 1930s which is mostly long and sensible articles with a serious front page.

            Where I believe it has all gone wrong is the standard media-driven problem of foreshortened attention spans and a newly learned need for more and more simulation. That is why – as in your last paragraph – politics in this country has been turned into a cross between a hatefest and a latter-day Roman games in which the key interest is in seeing whether one of the journalistic lions can drag down and destroy a political career. And we all know what happened to ancient Rome!

  • cartimandua

    Kirsty Wark has a fair amount of gravitas. I would like to see interviewing as something which is not about sneering bullying and interrupting.

    • balance_and_reason

      Too biased to the left…the ex-NME team really need to be moved on.

  • John

    Paxman became a parody of himself and I must agree his interviewing style became repugnant. With his aggressive techniques Politcians just became closed off and frightful of giving him a sound bite

  • rtj1211

    Dear me Mr Liddle. Are you really allowed to lust after a BBC employee’s gams??

    I know that women are allowed to say that because all men are lazy, they are allowed to nag them and get away with it (MEN, not ‘my husband’ you note), without being called sexist, but you really aren’t allowed to do anything but worship women as perfect, superior beings, are you??

  • MikeF

    The major story about the BBC at the moment is not Paxman – it is this DJ in Devon forced out for playing a record that contained a word which is now deemed offensive but which he did not know was there and was not in any case deemed so when the recording was made. What a demonstration of the utter, puritanical, obsessional, remorseless, self-righteously vindictive mindset that characterises the BBC right now – a mindset totally at variance with the tolerance and flexibility that once characterised this country. Yet again a commitment to demonstrate ‘diversity’ is shown to be a compulsion to enforce conformity.

    • Terry Field


  • Terry Field

    Oh dear, Paxo was like a magnificent pointer going for the quarry; now we have only a manky old scrofulous border terrier on its last legs and snapping at heels rather than going for throats.

  • Ken

    Paxman always treated politicians with the contempt they deserved. Although, in fairness, I think he sometimes gave them an easy ride as it was like shooting ducks in a barrel.

  • gram64

    Agreed, Rod Liddle. I’ve never thought Paxman was offensive – his interviewees, and indeed the Beeb hierarchy, should have understood that Paxman’s role is to play devil’s advocate and try to test their ideas, policies etc to destruction.

  • Colin Blackwell

    Piers Morgan and a mobile phone…….?!

  • M2

    Paxo and humphrys are the same – interviewing as a combative sport. It was probably effective 10 years ago. The politicians are now all media trained to ignore the questions and mechanically repeat the points they are told to hit. I much prefer Eddy Mair and Evan Davids enough rope to hang themselves before they go in for the kill

  • Mark

    John Humphrys? He hasn’t got a clue.

  • commenteer

    I suppose it will be Laura Keunssberg. I wouldn’t mind so much if she didn’t have the ugliest, most raspingly unpleasant voice I have ever heard.

  • JakePepper

    Karen Brockman played by Ramona Marquez in Outnumbered would be the best replacement for Paxman. She never let anyone off the hook!