Tonight is Jeremy Paxman's last appearance as lead anchor for Newsnight, the BBC's premier long-form news broadcast. To many, Paxman is a hero of hard-hitting journalism, famous for encounters such as this, with the egregious Home Secretary, Michael Howard:
Or this more recent one with the hapless Chloe Smith of the Treasury
There are many other examples of him at the top of his game: the interview with Blair in which he tried to pin down the PM's rather shifty conflation of Christianity and neoliberalism, then listed (from 8.50) one Labour donor's publishing stable ('Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Skinny and Wriggly') to which Blair could only reply 'I've said what I've said…Look…'.
I used to love Newsnight. The other news broadcasts seemed lazy, lightweight, incurious and uninformed. They were also, to my younger self, thrilling. A rude, loud and openly sceptical interviewer demanding answers to awkward questions from people I hated - Tories and rightwing Labour ministers and MPs. It was, frankly, a macho thing, a gladiatorial battle. I felt exactly the same way about the Today programme, Radio 4's flagship 3-hour morning news show.
I no longer feel that way. Firstly, probably because I'm getting old, I find myself frustrated by the sheer lack of knowledge displayed by all sides. I keep thinking that if I can educate myself in basic economics, climate science, philosophy, the arts, sociology etc. etc., the least the politicians and journalists paid to be experts can do is be ahead of me. I'm also sick of the closed circle of Establishment voices represented on Newsnight and its equivalents. Despite the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the importance of the EU, the dissemination of expertise to charities, universities and local organisations, the political and media classes are still resolutely metropolitan and Westminster-centric. I'm tired, too, of the relentless parade of privately-educated, Oxbridge-finished faces and voices reflecting a world-view and an interrogative style derived from the tired rituals of the Oxford Union debating society. The perspectives of tens of millions of other people just never get a look-in: and that's before we even touch the exclusion of female, minority-ethnic and northern people. Civil society is now invisible in political and hard news journalism, which I find deeply saddening. The obsession with the remnants of democracy seems rather archaic when executive and corporate power retreats further out of the reach of electoral politics.
Presentationally, I'm now utterly drained by the moribund, sterile set-up of Newsnight and Today. Paxman's aggressive approach was once essential: the interview with Michael Howard may well have changed the course of British politics by revealing him to be not just authoritarian but also profoundly dishonest. But it's a tactic that stopped working long ago. Any politician – with the exception of Chloe Smith – has had so much media training that an appearance opposite Paxo holds no more terror. They're trained in the art of 'bridging': filling the available 3/8/15 minutes with so much bland pap that neither the interviewer nor the audience is given anything to grasp beyond a sense of whether the interviewee is 'good on telly'. Paxman's brute force frontal attack can't do anything against an interviewee whose only concern is to 'fill'. They're trained to look human (I know, what a world, in which our representatives need training to sound like the rest of us, but it is, of course, our fault: we and our chosen newspapers and TV channels demand robotic perfection then mock them for giving us what we think we want), not to answer reasonable questions.
I am tired of the two-heads format in which people with extreme views are presented as equally knowledgeable while a presenter mediates ('Well he says you're a liar, what have you got to say to that?'). Yes, we all like a good argument but we often end up none the wiser, or even misled. Climate science is one particular victim here: presenting the views of corporate whores like Lawson (who has zero scientific background) as co-equal with 99% of active researchers in the field has literally done enormous damage to the planet. Last year I fruitlessly pursued a complaint against Newsnight, which presented Peter Lilley MP as an expert who'd written 'a report' about climate change, which he thinks is a hoax. The programme didn't mention that he has no credentials, nor did they mention that he is a director of an oil exploration company. In short, they presented him as a qualified and neutral observer. When I complained, they refused to accept that his interests should have been flagged up. When pressed, their defence was that Lilley's financial interests are listed in his Parliamentary Declaration of Interests, and were therefore common knowledge. Really? I strongly suspect that more people watched that interview than even know that there is a Declaration of Interests, let alone where to find it. TV is powerful, much more powerful than the notion that viewers are out there Googling the background of guests afforded the privilege of airtime on a flagship show. Newsnight's actions, and their response to my complaint, seemed little short of dishonest to me, an abuse of power.
Paxman famously cited Louis Heren's approach, 'Why is this lying bastard lying to me?' as the source of his style, but it's become unproductive, and contributes to a general cynicism which is infectious. I have no doubt that politicians did – and do – lie to Paxman and the rest of us, but Newsnight seems to have applied this method to absolutely everybody. The result is the grotesque sight, last Monday, of Paxman telling Professor Alice Roberts what the scientific method was, of functionaries, charity workers and ordinary people being treated as objects of suspicion, of climate scientists being accused of misleading the public for some kind of obscure conspiracist purpose, of good people being assumed to be up to something. This is corrosive, but it's also counter-productive. It's noticeable over recent years that Jeremy Paxman's editorialising and sneering is more frequently applied to people you might call liberal or leftwing. He has become openly reactionary, about climate science, non-neoliberal economics, youth culture, the arts, non-Establishment approaches to history and a host of other subjects, often, I suspect, those about which he knows least. This week's series of farewell interviews has been instructive. He seemed most at ease with Hillary Clinton, a rightwing machine politician well-versed in the art of giving nothing away. He is drawn to power and nowadays rarely interested in principle and motivation: like him, Clinton is about the exercise of authority rather than any kind of idealism. Paxman then talked to Lord Saatchi, who presented him with a copy of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and proceeded to explain that corporation tax should be abolished in the name of 'freedom'. To this, Paxman had no response to the redefinition of freedom as merely economic and available to rich capitalists, despite there being no shortage of very mainstream alternatives. The gift, it seemed to me, represented the thanks of a grateful class of neoliberal governors.
Is Jeremy Paxman a Conservative? I doubt it: he seems like a patrician radical to me. But away from the individual personality issues, I think he represents a deeply radical-conservative perspective which is socially damaging. The assumption that nobody has any higher motives reinforces the status quo. It militates against social, economic and political change. It maintains the dominance of a ruling class which may occasionally incorporate some dissent and alternatives (such as the general acceptance of homosexuality) as long as the deep structures of the state and the economy remain unchanged. Once this is understood, Newsnight, the Today show and its ilk become simply ritualistic performances little different to the excruciating arse-kissing seen when politicians turn up on breakfast TV sofas to talk about what they feed their kids or whether their partners have to do all the ironing: it's just a way of reaching a different demographic.
We end up with the tired rehearsal of familiar scripts, as Chris Morris pointed out a very long time ago in a satire that now doesn't look particularly extreme.
Do we gain anything from these shows? It's noticeable that neither the flagship programmes nor the investigative newspapers foresaw the financial crash, LIBOR, Snowden, the Savile affair or any of the major scandals of our time.
I think we've reached an impasse. The Fourth Estate is now too entirely bound up with corporate interests (the private sector), paralysed by fear or simply too enmeshed in the ritualistic, performative practices of the establishment. Effective scrutiny of power is now out of reach. There are journalists I admire: Paul Mason for one, but it's too easy for those with authority to evade their grasp. Citizen journalists, big data analysts, leakers and websites do their best, but they're largely excluded from the public forum and lack the resources for serious investigation, or they're also wrapped up in corporate webs.
I'm sorry to say that I won't miss Paxman. There's a place for attack-dog journalism, but the media landscape has moved on. Power is dispersed, discursive and often invisible. Unfortunately, being a mere blogger and so-so academic, I now run into the sand. We need a searching, effective media environment more than ever, one capable of reflecting on, exposing and investigating our governments, cultures and societies. Newsnight, battered by the Savile affair, has attempted a new direction (perhaps occasioning Paxman's departure) but it's a sad and pathetic show, seemingly desperate to keep up with the kids on Twitter by running LOLcats, excruciatingly 'funny' or 'quirky' pieces and trying badly to be arty, which communicates little more than creative and journalistic exhaustion and insecurity. I have no idea where we go from there. Your thoughts?