Long life

Evan Davies is SO not Jeremy Paxman (thank God)

I have high hopes for him — the time is ripe for a new approach to the political interview

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

It’s unusual for somebody promoting his own television programme to tell you not to watch it, but that’s what Evan Davis has been doing. At least, he has asked us not to watch Newsnight during his first week as its chief presenter — the week that is now drawing to its close — because it probably wouldn’t be any good until he’d had a bit more experience. And even then it might turn out to be no good, he’s said: we probably would know by Christmas if it was a disaster. As it happens, I am writing this just before his first appearance on the late-night news programme, but I wonder whether he will have cried on air. In interviews, he has talked a lot about his crying. ‘I cry a lot. All the time,’ he told the Times. And the particular thing that made him cry most often was ‘people trying to maintain dignity in the face of adversity’.

Such people are exemplified by many of the politicians he will be required to interview, so tears might easily flow. The idea of an interviewer crying is a novel one: if anyone were to cry, one would expect it to be the interviewee (as the late Gilbert Harding did in 1960 during his famous Face to Face interview with John Freeman). But Davis is not ashamed of being a sensitive sort of chap. As an openly gay man, with a tattoo and rumours of hidden body piercings, he seems rather proud of not being an ‘Alpha Male’. ‘I am SO not Jeremy Paxman,’ he told the Daily Telegraph, with evident satisfaction.
For he is eager to make clear, in the politest possible way, that the adversarial approach to interviews, for which Paxman and John Humphrys are celebrated, is not in his view the only — or, indeed, the best — one. ‘My own feeling is that the idea that every interview is about trying to expose the fault in the argument being presented is a mistaken premise,’ he said. ‘I think the danger is that journalists have become so full of themselves …that they’ve forgotten that there are a million other ways of having a useful conversation with people.’ Politicians, he believes, are now ‘overscrutinised’: ‘It’s possible that we are holding our politicians to account to such a degree that we’re almost paralysing them. They can’t think aloud. They can’t even eat a bacon sandwich in a natural way.’

Much as I will miss the spectacle of Paxman crushing his victims, so many of whom deserved to be crushed, I think that Davis is right: the time is ripe for a new approach to the political interview. Politicians have seldom been held in lower esteem, and the aggressive interview makes them so cautious, defensive and repetitive that their reputations can only suffer more. Now you have to be an outspoken, maverick populist, like Nigel Farage, to command any degree of public enthusiasm. This is very bad for democracy. Assuming, as one must, that not all politicians are craven and corrupt, it would be good to give a chance to those who are not to reveal themselves, to encourage them to speak freely and uninhibitedly without fear of being pulverised.

Politicians, however honourable and well intentioned they may be, have all been cowed by the deluge of public opprobrium brought on them by the expenses scandal. Although they are underpaid, they do not dare to accept a pay rise; and they hardly even dare to charge justified expenses for fear of unjustified outrage. Those that deserve it should now be allowed to present themselves as the decent people they are, if any respect for the political class is to be restored. And this would appear to be Davis’s intention, if he doesn’t quite put it that way. His aim is to be curious rather than aggressive and to give more modest people a chance to speak up. ‘I don’t want alpha males making all the decisions,’ he has said. ‘I would like more thoughtful people to have more of a say over things.’

This is an ambition that he will find difficult to fulfil, but he has set a good example as an interviewee himself. He has answered all questions, even those about his private life and sexuality, with disarming frankness and with a degree of self-deprecation that has not seemed false. My hopes are rather high.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • commenteer

    The ‘friendly’ political interview is nothing new. Its best proponents were surely David Frost, and Brian Walden on ‘Weekend World’, both of whom were masters in persuading politicians to reveal far more than they intended. Unfortunately the Evan Davies style is to bat politicians the kind of inane question they usually encounter on local radio.
    I had to sit up for Andrew Neil this week to get a sensible take on what was going on, including a masterly interview with our current Foreign Secretary.

    • Samson

      Neil’s done a good job at the conferences these past weeks. His no-nonsense approach is probably the best I’ve seen.

  • trace9

    “.. Evan Davies, jeremy Paxman ..”

    Paxo won’t like that..

  • greggf

    “His aim is to be curious rather than aggressive and to give more modest people a chance to speak up.”

    His 3 questions to David Cameron simply revealed an indecisive PM. Although the questions were very ambiguous.
    Perhaps we should wait till Christmas……

  • steve

    Yes of course, politicians need to be interviewed in a gentler manner, because as we all know, they are genuine in their motives, just misunderstood. Go for it Evan, don’t hold anyone to account for lies or sophistry, the truth will emerge all by itself.

  • steve

    Of course the BBC itself has no establishment agenda, how I cried when I watched that genuine “napalm attack” newsnight film, on the night of the Syria debate. Evan should fit right in.

  • Blindsideflanker

    A question Evan Davis asked ‘ Are you offended by the sight of two men kissing in public?’ and the question he didn’t ask ‘In light of the US getting a case of Ebola should we be worried about the lack of border controls?’ suggests Evan Davis just the person to fit in in the metropolitan, metro-sexual, multicultural world of BBC.

    • greggf

      Men kiss other men all the time here on most of the Continent.
      It was a dumb question reflecting a Freudian perception.
      Oh, and so were the other questions dumb.
      The BBC have arguably decided on a policy of ambiguity.

    • Jocky McLean

      Hi, just to point out: people don’t become gay because they live in cities or they accept other cultures. They are born gay. Get over it. And if you find two men kissing offensive, you’re a bigot no matter your metropolitan or rural dwelling.

  • Samira Edi

    I’ll give Evan Davis a chance, only because I like him. I’ve ignored everything I’ve read in this article as it is irrelevant and subjective. I only hope that News Night never loses its verve.

  • Liz

    People reveal more when you’re nice to them. The CIA taught me that.

  • Samson

    “Politicians, however honourable and well intentioned they may be, have all been cowed by the deluge of public opprobrium brought on them by the expenses scandal. Although they are underpaid…”

    The cost of expenses is more now than it was during the times of the scandal, and they get a free house, and seventy grand a year, for half a year’s work. I’m all for people drawing a wage that fits their efforts and results, so it seems like they’re doing pretty well all in all.

  • edithgrove

    Wasn’t it Evan Davis who blamed the rise of Isis on something Joan Rivers had said?

  • RadioJockhadistan

    We perfectly understand the changes made at the BBC. Paxman’s interview style is diametrically opposed to that of Evans, but will the latter be able to tease out the uncomfortable bits when interviewing his opponents? Only time will tell.

  • Ali

    Does anyone remember his first week or so at ‘Today’, I recall him interviewing the mother of Victoria Climbie. He was totally nice to her, respecting all she had to say, including the criticism she had of British social services, but he never once asked her why she had sent her little daughter over seas to live with the vile, old witch who killed her so horribly. It was really awful and I’m afraid I thought it was because he was a gay man and couldn’t understand at first hand what parental feelings ought to be, that all he could do was to sympathise generally. However, he has improved over the years and I do like him. It’s just sometimes sympathy isn’t enough.

  • Mc

    Evan Davis, like most of his colleagues is a vacuous airhead. I mean, how else would one get a job at the BBC? And few who have marketable skills and ability would want to stick around in the same organisation for most of their working life.

  • Agrippina

    ‘Although they are underpaid, they do not dare to accept a pay rise; and they hardly even dare to charge justified expenses for fear of unjustified outrage’.

    You are aware of all the directorships they have and other consultancy work they do. Along with employing their wives and children c/o the taxpayer. Please do give it a rest, most of them couldn’t get work in the real world, hence they go into politics in the first place.

    They work for 6mths if that and although we are constantly told they are very busy, quite a few of them manage to conduct affairs and visit rent boys. Don’t believe a word of it, their researchers work very hard and in some cases are not paid very much at all.

    Evan Davis always cries when he returns from his home in France. He gets upset seeing all the illegals desperate to come over here. They would string him up if they knew about his private life. He is much too much of a light weight and when he was given the run around on the Today prog, he used to get just as shirty as Humphreys I recall.

  • jjjj

    Evan Davis is a hypocrite. One thing he enjoys doing is ambushing Britain’s Chief Rabbis, He seems to delight in it. He did it with Rabbi Sachs and again with the incumbent. An utter disgrace and thanks to his ‘progressive’ views, Islamism gets off the hook.