Goodnight, Paxo, we'll miss wicked sense of fun
In his 'Newsnight' swansong, Jeremy Paxman proved he's one of the best, writes Emer O'Kelly
Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30
'Do you think he's gone a bit nuts?" It was vintage Jeremy Paxman. And the question wasn't about a prancing pop star newly out of multi-drug rehab. It referred to former prime minister Tony Blair, and it was put to Lord Mandelson, architect of Blair's New Labour disaster. And it's exactly what anyone who has been following the Blair self-justifying saga has been wondering.
You could say that the credit belongs to the BBC for its longtime policy of allowing Paxman his arrogant, well-informed, cynical head. Certainly, RTE would run scared from a broadcaster whose intellect so spectacularly matches his confidence.
Just as one suspects that outraged telephone calls would be made from government buildings to the chairman of the RTE Authority as well as the director general following a skewering of any Irish politician which came even close to the Paxman treatment.
But the BBC man has been untouchable, simply because he is, rather than in spite of being, no respecter of persons.
He respects only the truth beneath the surface, and pursues it relentlessly on behalf of the public.
It is said that all politicians have dreaded Jeremy Paxman during his 25 years on Newsnight. There may even have been a few glasses raised in triumph in Downing Street and across Whitehall on Wednesday night as the "veteran" broadcaster bowed out, and not necessarily to wish him well. Over the years Paxman has deflated more political egos, punctured more political balloons, and exposed more second-rate political waffling, than anybody else in English language broadcasting.
On one occasion several years ago, when Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness whined and whinged on for several minutes in a non-answer to a simple question concerning his violent IRA past, Paxman looked at him with visible contempt: "And that's your idea of a straight answer, is it?" It was an open sneer, and a well-merited one, and when Paxman swung away from the monitor on which McGuinness smirked, the Derry man, far from having flannelled his way out of things, looked shifty. It was a better outcome for truth than if he had had the honesty to answer the question in the first place.
Paxman was in top form on Wednesday night for his last Newsnight. Questioning the Iraqi ambassador to the UN on the disintegrating situation in his country, he let him flounder concerning a demand/request by his government for US airstrikes against the militant rebels, then cut across him: "So you can't cope?"
The ambassador then proceeded to blame the current horror on the fact that the US had pulled out of his country. Paxman followed up: "So your military was inept?" It was both cutting and telling, and far more effective than those all-too-frequent meandering statements designed to display the interviewer's self-assumed expertise, (and we could all name names) and to which the bewildered interviewee might well imagine he or she is there merely as a prop for the broadcaster's ego ... or alternatively the broadcaster's terrified insecurity concerning his or her inadequacy.
Paxman has always assumed he will be paid the compliment of knowing what he's talking about: because he has proved that he always does know what he's talking about.
When he moved on to the high representative of the regional government of Iraq in Kurdistan, he pushed until he got a reluctant admission that Kurdistan does not like the central government in Iraq. Newsnight's wasp was in immediately: "Are you allied with Assad?" There was no straight answer: there could be none in the circumstances, which in itself spoke the proverbial volumes. Nobody in Iraq or its regions was emerging with honour from any of this.
Despite the trademark terse manner and brief, compellingly pointed questions which display mastery of his brief and an indifference to being considered a "nice fellow", Paxman has constantly been accused of having a massive ego. I have never met him, but I suspect the accusation is entirely accurate. And he has a right to his ego; he has never to my knowledge been wrong-footed, no matter what is thrown at him. He knows his brief, usually in more detail and far more closely analysed than the people he is interviewing on any topic.
And the hard graft and impressive intellect are blissfully modified with a wicked sense of humour which is never afraid to allow others to shine. The farewell "funny" on Wednesday was a tandem ride around London with that dedicated cyclist and mayor of the city, Boris Johnson.
As they cycled through inner city streets, Boris was serially greeted with cheery "Hello Boris"-es. "Do they always do that?" Paxman asked from the back saddle. Came the cheerful reply: "No, they normally shout, 'You Tory tosser'." Recognising a master-stroke, Paxman had the wit and the sense not to try to top it.
But it was in dealing with Peter Mandelson on Wednesday that Jeremy Paxman displayed his mastery, and left us with a legacy of what good current affairs broadcasting should be about.
The subject was deadly serious – Blair's decision as prime minister to take Britain into Iraq in support of the Bush government invasion, and that invasion's contribution to the current Iraqi disaster. But there was nothing portentous in his dealing with the man who was in studio effectively to defend the fact that he had made the disaster possible by masterminding New Labour's campaign for office.
Peter Mandelson is a former secretary of state for business and a former Northern Ireland secretary. He was forced to resign from Cabinet twice concerning personal issues, and returned twice. Like Paxman, nobody seems to like him, but everyone acknowledges his mastery of any brief.
The pair were well-matched, as Paxman taxed Lord Mandelson concerning Blair's recent defiant defence of the invasion of Iraq, and his statement to parliament at the time of the invasion that "if you knew what I know", they would support the decision.
What he "knew" was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
None were found following the invasion.
A filmed insert from a correspondent preceded the interview, which reminded viewers that Blair's press officer, Alastair Campbell, had "lied [to] and bullied" the media and the public at large concerning Britain's role in Iraq.
In defence of the political communications game of those days, Peter Mandelson told Paxman: "Good communications flow from good policies."
It was uncharacteristically lame, possibly due to the fact that he was facing the Bear of the BBC; the goal was now open.
"So you still think it was the right decision?" A simple question after a week when news bulletins have been filled with horror stories from Iraq, arguably a catastrophe caused directly by the Anglo-American invasion which cost so many lives, and is still costing them ... mostly those of civilians.
Jeremy Paxman has always known how to ask unanswerable questions. And then he shuts up. He didn't say that Tony Blair was an egotistic moron. He just left us to make up our own minds. Just as he has always done.
Of course, he has been helped by the fact that he works for an organisation which doesn't regard "intellectualism" as an insult.
One hell of a journalist has retired from the programme he built into the BBC's main pillar of incisive commentary and analysis. One hell of an achievement for one man.