One of the most gladiatorial journalists of our day reveals his battle with shyness, and says humility and self-doubt are healthy qualities to have.
At 65, Jeremy Paxman is the Lord Voldemort of interviewers. His confrontational style makes his skirmishes both thrilling and intellectually violent – being ‘Paxmaned’ has been compared to being hit with a baseball bat.
Most will know him for metaphorically flinging some unfortunate against the ropes then going repeatedly for the jugular. During this year’s pre-election debates, for example, Ed Miliband was quizzed so mercilessly that, as the credits rolled, Paxman could be heard saying: “Are you okay, Ed? Are you all right?” It only compounded the leader of the opposition’s humiliation.
In June 2014 Paxman left the BBC’s Newsnight after 25 years. It’s said he hadn’t hit it off with new boss, Ian Katz, who criticised Paxman’s style and suggested politicians deserved greater understanding. Still, Paxman remains a central figure in our consciousness. Irascible and obnoxious he may be, but as a journalist he asks the questions we want asked and comes at politicians as a committed, exceptionally well-read and astute punter.
I’m meeting him at London private members’ club Home House, where he is presenting the second of Grant Thornton UK’s Inspiring Business lectures (Professor Brian Cox was the first). I’m expecting sharpened fangs. What I get is a relaxed and urbane man with passionate opinions and a sense of renewed energy now that his time is his own.
Not at all, it’s terrific. I’m busier now than ever but I choose what I do. Freedom is a wonderful thing.
Giving the McTaggart Memorial Lecture in 2007, you said television was losing public trust. Is it rediscovering its sense of purpose?
I think it’s quite a precious thing, and I’m slightly depressed by all sorts of aspects of it. I still think that in the right hands, it can serve a noble purpose. The problem is that change is driven not by editorial but technical considerations, and that technology is beginning to make TV seem an utterly outmoded medium.
‘I’m not a pessimist about the future of human society but serious changes are occurring. There are genuine concerns about social cohesion’
Do you have kids around you at home? It’s interesting how many are simultaneously watching several screens. I’m not a pessimist about the future of human society but I do think serious changes are occurring. There are genuine causes for concern about social cohesion.
You clearly still relish your job but is it true that you struggle, or have done, with meeting people?
All I can say is what I was; certainly it used to be the case, when I look back on my youthful years, that I was naturally pretty shy. Always the person who, at a party, would end up stuck in a corner, not really talking to anyone. I’ve learned you’ve just got to get on the front foot and throw yourself into it, and that pays rewards hugely. And of course, everyone else is in the same boat.
You’re known for the amount of research you do and one past editor of Newsnight has said: “He’s his own harshest critic; he flays himself.” Does this tendency indicate a touch of self-doubt, of not wanting to get caught out?
Of course. I think it’s unhealthy not to have an element of that. It’s one of the reasons one is distrustful of people who wield power. I mean, I accept that decisions have to be made, and they’re rarely made on the basis of perfect outcomes or even perfect starting points, but the pretence of omniscience seems to me a very dangerous thing.
‘It’s a very good thing when people change their minds, when they think about something and realise their previous position was wrong’
Powerful people often pretend to it, and journalists have made that worse by saying: “Ooh, you’ve done a U-turn.” Well, that’s just pathetic. It’s a very good thing when people change their minds, when they think about something and realise their previous position was wrong.
Do you always think you can do something differently next time, or better?
Yeah, I do. I don’t ever want to walk away from something thinking: “That was as good as it could possibly have been.” One always thinks: “God, you missed a few tricks there.”
What do you think is the most underrated quality?
Curiosity is important. Humility is important. Kindness is important. But are they underrated? I admire people who are humble. I’ve interviewed kings and presidents, gangsters and soldiers and terrorists, but the most interesting people have been religious figures. They’ve devoted their life to trying to understand the only question that matters, which is, is there a purpose?
My favourite summary of that is… I was at the funeral of a friend’s father. On the back of the order of service was written a quotation by a Church of England clergyman, to my shame I can’t remember who. His observation was: “We are put here to be kind to others. What the others are here for, I’ve no idea.”
He grins. “Good, isn’t it?”
It is, and it’s the quip of an intrigued and genial man, liberated from his necessarily apolitical stance on Newsnight to speak his mind and to pursue an unlimited breadth of questions.
Image: Matt James