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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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