Jeremy Paxman - Most of the news is not important
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
I talk to Jeremy Paxman, inquisitor & questionmaster, about frankness, work, and how to do it.
When was the last time you were intimidated or afraid in an interview?
In an interview? I cannot now recall, although… scared during the course of an interview, yeah actually, quite often come to think of it. But I would never think of it like that, scared; more apprehensive, deeply uncertain and troubled that one was barking up the wrong stick. Those kind of feelings are very common, everybody feels like that don’t they? Journalists pretend to omniscience, but they don’t have omniscience and in a relationship like an interview the cards haven’t been dealt equally. The person you’re interviewing knows the subject - you don’t. You merely know what you’ve mugged up on frantically beforehand. The thinness of your knowledge is the thing that always worries you about letting you down. So lots of times I’ve been skating on pretty thin ice, but is that scared? Apprehensive, tentative perhaps. Keep dancing one step ahead of nemesis I think.
“You should have done something in the world before you put yourself in a position where you’re making judgements that affect the lives of all of us” is how you’ve described your view on career politicians with no life experience. What did you do before you started making judgements?
Well you know perfectly well if you’ve done your research. Just acting as some simple conduit are you? You’re making a big judgement here too, and I think a mistake. All the initial stages of journalism are about reporting things; it’s only after many years that you’re asked by people to pass a judgement. So the strict answer on a piece of paper is: none whatsoever.
Most of what’s said in Parliament is an absolute waste of time
So you were just a conduit in the early years?
No, I wouldn’t have said so. Any journalist who thinks they’re a conduit might as well be the Cloaca Maxima of ancient Rome! It’s ridiculous, I thought all the time that I was working as a reporter: “I may not particularly want to go to this dodgy place, but if I don’t go perhaps nobody will go, or perhaps somebody else will go who will come to a completely different reading of things and I don’t want that.”
You were a war reporter for seven years; perhaps an arena exhausting enough to have given you a sense of how life can be. Having moved to the studio, did you find it a kind of bubble similar to the Westminster village?
I think it’s very unhealthy the way television studios seem so unduly preoccupied with themselves, and those things they can deal with. Did I find that as bad as the Westminster village? I think the Westminster village is a highly undesirable thing, and personally I would remove all correspondents from Westminster. They’ve got to be there and report what’s said in Parliament, but most of what’s said in Parliament is an absolute waste of time, I don’t understand what those people do all day.
The first thing I’d do if I was in charge of political coverage would be to pull them back to the centre of gravity of their organisation. So if their organisation is any good it ought to be reflecting what the concerns are of the citizenry. Ok that’s an opaque process, but it’s a lot more relevant to people than to be trembling to the drumbeat of what’s going on in Westminster – which is currently what happens I think. So a lot of that stuff that you see reported is looking at life from the wrong end of the telescope.
With further centralisation wouldn’t you exacerbate further bureaucracy?
One would hope not, there’s far too many bureaucrats in this business anyway.
Isn’t that a problem then? It’s a hallmark of big government instead of decentralised local authorities?
Of course it’s a hallmark of big government that it has a lot of bureaucrats.
So I’m asking about big media.
Well, you think it’s not big media because it happens to have offices in different places?
No. It’s clearly already massive, but possibly less massive than if you pooled them all together and made them all work from one office?
There would be economies of scale would there not? I think this line of questioning is getting you nowhere.
I think people understand direct questions, and they appreciate them.
Ok, well Tony Blair took issue with your line of questioning in an interview from 2002, saying he wouldn’t respond “because I don’t think they’re very sensible questions to answer”. Although he mainly had a problem with the question’s relevance, I think more widely he was probably correct: you often ask questions that it simply isn’t sensible for ministers to answer.
What was he talking about?
I think it was about the church and his personal faith, and whether to accept donations from the pornographer-owner of the Express. (It was in fact about his faith and faith schools). But when you put people in these binds, which you do, what do you expect them to say?
I expect them to say something human and honest; like, ‘yeah that is embarrassing, but that particular bloke was investigated and it was deemed that he’s a legitimate donor’. That’s a frank answer isn’t it?
Quite often they don’t often give frank answers. Do you think your style of questioning could be responsible for pushing ministers further down in their holes to escape the bombardment?
No. The way to deal with a question is simply to answer it, isn’t it? I suspect the question about religious faith, it must have been before it all went bad for Blair, early days of Afghanistan, but it’s clearly relevant. I always felt that Blair was very much more a religious figure than a political figure. It struck me that he was always invested with some sort of burning messianic faith; and therefore was rather unlike many other politicians. I do not hear people saying “why aren’t you nicer to these individuals?” I think people understand direct questions, and they appreciate them.
Recently you’ve been described as having a lack of political faith or allegiance, being a classic ‘floating voter’. Is that simply useful or is it just you?
I do believe that you must vote, that’s an absolute duty - if you live in society you must vote. But I don’t believe that any one party has a monopoly of answers to the problems that beset us. When it comes to making a decision at election time, I make a balance of advantage and disadvantage to myself, my family, my community, my country, my society, and if I’m feeling particularly big, to the world. But that’s how everybody does it. Very few people believe unwaveringly in any one particular party – that’s a mark of bovine, stick in the mud thoughtlessness.
I’ve never felt I’ve fitted in.
Recently when you questioned Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to the election, one of the first questions you asked was about the sacrifices to his own belief system in his manifesto. Is this a logical continuation of your last train of thought: that of course he has to shed some of them in light of the fact that he represents a political party?
I think people are entitled to know when they vote for a political leader what they’re getting. The fact that some things were not in his manifesto which he believed in was clearly relevant. This man will choose his cabinet if he’s elected. The problem I think for most politicians, and this is why it matters what they really deep down believe, is that they do not control events. They spend much of their time trying to handle things which just happen. And in that context it’s very important to know what they really believe, because if you don’t, you don’t know how they might react.
Can you describe a maxim of your own that captures a sense of why you ask questions?
People are entitled to know. When people got more specific and would start asking about ‘what right you have’, of course you have no right whatsoever – you have just the same right as the ordinary citizen. What you do have that the ordinary citizen doesn’t have, is opportunity. And if you have that opportunity I believe you should exercise it for the benefit of the public as a whole. Of course that gives you a tremendous amount of leeway interpreting what you deem to be of public importance or interest or amusement, but I don’t think you can do anything else.
Do you think you’ve often succeeded?
That’s for others to judge, I’ve no idea.
As you cycled the streets of London on a tandem bike like the back half of Boris Johnson’s pantomime horse, Boris praised you as “a landmark of our culture”. What’s it like being one?
You’ve already tried to get me to answer for someone else’s idiot comment. What Boris says is a matter between Boris and his mouth. It’s nothing to do with me. What do I think of myself, how do I fit in? I’ve never fitted in, I’ve never felt I’ve fitted in. I suppose over a period of time you acquire a certain notoriety, but those judgements are for others. All you can do is to try and keep doing your job.
I was going to ask how you felt you stood out, then, but I feel like it’s the same answer.
I don’t feel that I do! (laughs) And there are lots of people that you’ll never have heard of, and I’ve never heard of, even on outlets that we don’t understand… that we never come across, who are doing the same sort of thing. That’s all.
It’s not my world. Politicians are different to most of us.
Do you sometimes feel as if you’re misunderstood by the general public, and would you prefer to be thought of on your own terms?
That’s pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. Pathetic to worry about being misunderstood by others, all you can do is be true to yourself isn’t it?
Politely, the question may still stand.
Do I worry about it, the answer is clearly: No I don’t. (laughs) All you can do is do what you do.
Ministers often use your first name as a point of punctuation, Jeremy, when up against a difficult question. Are you on close personal terms with many of your interviewees?
No. I have never felt myself at ease in the company of politicians, even when I was a student I didn’t. I did join political clubs, but I never went to them. I think I spoke once at the union. It’s not my world. Politicians are different to most of us. I do not want to tell other people how to lead their lives; of course I do, but I don’t have that opportunity and I’ve never sought the opportunity.
Why questions then?
I suppose, to be pompous, I believe in the Socratic method, I believe that’s how you learn things: by asking questions.
Hannah Arendt draws a clear distinction between a philosophy of thought, with Socrates just sitting considering eternity, as opposed to Plato who wrote and tried to influence people. Would you prefer thought and consideration, but find yourself drawn in to the act of re-purposing information?
No I love questions because they’re a very, very effective way of holding people’s feet to the fire. And I think that’s your job as a journalist, I cannot find another way of putting it. It’s our job to hold them to account, more easily done with questions than many other things.
You want ____ don’t you? Is one of your methods of questioning, putting words in their mouths.
Well it saves time. And you should do it. If they were then to turn around and say “I don’t know what you’ve been reading, eating, drinking, but you are completely wrong” – then we’ve got a basis for discussion. But you do that after reading what they have said and being sure you’re accurate. It saves time. There’s a lot of umming and erring in everyday conversation.
A measured word is worth a great deal more than some oblique photograph.
When the news distils conversation into soundbites and headlines, what’s the worst thing that we lose?
I don’t pay much attention to electronic news these days. I find I want to take the news at my own pace. It’s why I really believe in the printed word; I know newspapers are in big trouble. I only take two now, I used to take three. But I’d rather do things at my pace than take them at the pace of somebody standing up in a self-important way in a television studio and hectoring me that this is important; it’s not very often. My basic view about news is that most of it is not important. You should care about those things you can do something about, but I can’t do anything about Trump’s latest idiotic tweet, and I can’t do anything about the latest accident on the M62. I will try to make amends to those I’ve treated badly, but by and large most of it is just a way of making you feel miserable. And impotent.
I remember this particularly of South America, that as far as the British media are concerned most of Latin America might as well not exist. And Africa was, in the days when there was a good number of foreign correspondents, overcovered. But there are human beings leading lives of comparable importance in each place. There are historic and cultural reasons for this, I understand. But one was forever having arguments about what the priorities are; there used to be an old law in the newsroom that 3,000 people dead in China equals 300 dead in Ukraine equals 4 slightly injured in Warwickshire or something. And that’s a geographical way of looking at things. It doesn’t always work by geography; sometimes it works by history or culture. Nowadays it works very much by where communities, minority groups, have come from – so that’s another consideration.
You yourself have focused very much on Britain in your factual histories, why?
It’s where I belong. It’s where I come from. I have never, as I’ve said, felt I belong to any social group, but it’s a society that endlessly fascinates me. I can’t give you a more interesting answer than that I’m afraid. I do find it fascinating… I’d be a fraud to try and take on something like a book on France, I barely speak the language beyond restaurant French. I speak bad French and bad Spanish, that’s it.
In an interview with Tanya Gold you declared that journalism “connives at its own irrelevance”, where should one look for dignified salvation?
Your blog! (laughs) I don’t know. Social media is an absolute waste of time, I think. I see nothing to be gained by spending a great deal of attention on what others have had to say about events simply because there is a phoney parity of esteem given to all sources on social media. We’ve all got to work our way through it, haven’t we? Decide who we believe and who we don’t believe, and who we find provocative. But I’m not going to give you a reading list. As I say, I still believe in printed words. And I know that they’re a pain in the neck for many people but in the end, a measured word is worth a great deal more than some oblique photograph.
I get the sense that you don’t want, or don’t care, to be felt of as anything by anybody really. What do you want day to day? Has your life returned to a sense of private personal-ness?
I never felt it was anything else. I’m very glad to have got off the treadmill, but beyond that I remain as engaged with the world as ever, I think.
Has your career been a work well shouldered, or a game well played?
Aspects of it are a game, but I like to be busy. And I’m temperamentally incapable of coping with inactivity. Does that answer your question? I don’t know that it does really… Yeah, I think life is work. That was how I was brought up I suppose. I once went to a funeral service and on the back of the order of service someone had written a comment attributed usually to W. H Auden, but it’s probably not him: “We are put on this earth to be kind to others, what the others are here for, I have no idea.”