The notoriously ruthless political interviewer last month stepped down from the UK’s Newsnight after 25 years to focus on books and, er, comedy. Rob Garratt asks what’s next.
Renowned for pulling politicians to pieces and wrecking reputations live on air, there are few more terrifying men to be interviewed by than Jeremy Paxman. And, having sat down for half an hour with Paxman, just a Dictaphone in my defence, I can report there are few more intimidating people to interview, too.
Meeting the British broadcaster in Dubai for a puff piece about his appearance at the city’s LitFest, Paxman’s deliberate difficultness confounded me at the time: He behaved with an belligenrantly arrogant air, dropping condescending asides (‘that’s not good enough... matey’) and refusing even to answer basic questions. Why the need for such toxic obnoxiousness? A few weeks later a London-based ex-editor of mine called, hoping I could hook her up with Paxman following the revelations he’d quit his career-defining role presenting BBC’s Newsnight after 25 years at the helm. Suddenly his prickly precociousness towards my seemingly innocuous questions about his future made marginally more sense.
Soon after it was revealed that, after his last showscreened in June, Paxman would be turning to live performance with a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. So as the renowned journalist, historian, and now comedian (?), heads to pastures new, here are some selected highlights (and telling hints) from my barb-fuelled meeting with the 64-year-old assailant.
What makes a good interview?
A good interview is where you learn something. If in the process it has made people gasp or laugh or cry, then that’s a dividend, but the key thing is finding something out.
Is an element of conflict necessary?
No – there’s an element of inquiry which is necessary. Sometimes you have to use different tactics. You have to find a way of getting through the prepared carapaces: shells, defences, press releases, forms of words and speeches which people are going to deliver to what you thought was a perfectly straightforward enquiry. It does demand of course a degree of... arrogance.
The way you channel all that ennobled rage onscreen, there must be an element of caricature to the whole thing.
Is the whole thing an act? I’ve obviously failed to communicate to you. No it’s not a tool. I think that if you ask a question you must get an answer.
And you enjoy it, that attack?
Yeah. And those very frequent moments when you think: What am I going to ask him now? Or her now. I like that thinking on your feet.
Do you ever look back and think: I went too far there?
Yes, of course, everybody must do. You wouldn’t be human if you thought you’d done everything perfectly. I certainly have made many, many mistakes.
Who do you consider your journalistic ‘greatest hits’?
I’m not sure I’ve had one.
There must be politicians you’ve developed affection towards, but are then forced to attack?
You’re never forced to.
What did you really think of Tony Blair?
I thought many things of him.
Care to share any of them?
I don’t think so.
Okay... and what is it that keeps you going after all this time?
I’m still... endlessly curious. There are questions that will never be answered satisfactorily, but I don’t propose to perspire without carrying on asking them.
So what’s next for Jeremy Paxman?
I don’t know, I’ll be doing something or other, I hope. I don’t know what it will be.
Something at the BBC?
I don’t know what – I’m a journalist, not a clairvoyant.
Yes, but you do have some control over your own personal circumstances.
I have a bit of control, yeah. So much of life is just things that happen.
What’s your next book about?
Mind your own business.
You do realise you’re being deeply hypocritical.
Because as you’ve pointed out, journalists have the right to demand an answer.
So demand away. I demand an answer, but it doesn’t mean I always get an answer.
Should I ask you the question 12 times [as Paxman famously did to UK politician Michael Howard]?
You could if you wish, you could carry on as many times as you like.
And how many times would it take until you’d get up and leave?
Well, I don’t understand why Michael Howard didn’t get up and leave!
You have been described as ‘aggressive, intimidating and condescending’. Is that a compliment or an insult?
That is a series of adjectives that I didn’t write. I can’t do anything about it. To be perfectly honest, I don’t care.
Pick three words you would prefer.
Workaday journalist will do. It’s a perfectly honourable disreputable trade, and I don’t really want it to be anything else. I just ask questions, that’s all. That’s no big deal.