High Profile

Cross examined?

Andrew Graystone

Over 25 years as a presenter on Newsnight on BBC2, Jeremy Paxman
acquired a reputation as Britain’s most fearsome inquisitor. Third
Way met him in Salford between bouts of University Challenge.

I suspect that you don’t much like talking about yourself.

No, I hate it. I’m a journalist, and a journalist’s job is to
find out what others are doing, not to talk about themselves. It
seems to me the acquisition of understanding is very different to
the expression of opinion. It may, in fact, very often be the
absolute antithesis.

Why did you first decide you wanted to be a journalist?

The real bugger about life, of course, is, you can only
understand it looking backwards but you have to live it looking
forwards. Looking back, I can see that journalism was a natural
fit, because I like finding things out and I love words; but it
didn’t seem like it at the time. At the time, I didn’t know really
what I was doing and I applied for all sorts of things and was
turned down by every single one of them – including loads of
journalistic things.

What other lines of work did you try to get into?

All the usual stuff: the Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service,
commerce, industry…

What were the values you brought to journalism?

Well, you know, we’re all guilty of vanity, aren’t we? I used to
think – particularly when I first went to Northern Ireland, and
then when I was covering conflicts elsewhere in the world that a
lot of people did not wish to go to1 – that if I don’t go and speak
the truth as I find it, then someone else will and they may see
something different. Or maybe no one will go. So, I don’t want to
sound messianic about it, but that was my motivation.

You didn’t just want to be a reporter, you wanted to make a
difference?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, shining a light is very often allied to a
desire to change things, and I did want to change a lot of things.
I don’t know that journalism is necessarily the best way of
achieving that. There comes a point in life when you realise that
your destiny is really to be an observer, to stand on the
sidelines. I didn’t really have any desire to get on the pitch. I
found that the difference between me and friends who went into
politics (for example) was that they wanted to tell others how to
lead their lives, and I have never had that desire! I will try to
lead my life in a certain kind of way, and I will form a judgement
about how other people lead their lives; but I have never wanted to
tell people how to live. Over the years, I have acquired quite
serious convictions about human nature, and one of them is that
most people are decent and, left to their own devices and giv-en a
chance, will behave well. I find it very unfortunate that I’ve
spent most of my life working in a trade that, essentially,
convinces people that the reverse is true! The bread and butter of
the mass media is bad behaviour, aberrant behaviour – and the world
is not like that. It’s the nature of news that it concentrates on
the unusual. The usual, which is not newsworthy, is not
transgressive, not threatening and not unpleasant, I think.

Are you a hopeful person?

Ah, well… I don’t know. I think I’m a naturally quite gloomy
person. When I’d say to my mother, ‘How are you, Mum?’, she’d say
‘Oh, not so bad!’ in that characteristically downbeat Yorkshire
way; and I think that may be what it is. I am accustomed to hearing
the telephone ring and expecting it will be some catastrophe, you
know? And of course it isn’t, most of the time. So, am I hopeful?
What do I hope for? Do I think we are inevitably progressing to a
better world? I rather doubt it! I think there’s an awful lot to
worry about in the world. There’s far too much importance put upon
unimportant things. There are far too many of us in the world, and
there are real, objective pressure points: access to water, access
to energy. Population is a really, really big problem. Which is one
of the serious issues I have with various religious
institutions.

Your friend Christopher Hitchens criticised Mother Teresa
because she advocated against birth control, didn’t he?

Well, Hitch enjoyed being an iconoclast. I have very big
problems with religious faith, I’m afraid, but I do know that very
often religious people be- have much better than irreligious people
who are only concerned about themselves. It is striking how much
charitable behaviour is religiously motivated. My particular
charitable interests are homelessness and mental health, and a very
large number of charities in that sort of field – the most visible
being the Salvation Army, of course – see direct social action,
with often very difficult- to-reach people, as an expression of
their belief. I think there has been a signal failure on the part
of humanists, atheists, non-believers generally, to find an
effective way of harnessing fellow feeling.

So, why do you think humanists don’t set up food banks?

They do, of course they do – but in my experience it’s unusual
to find a soup kitchen or an overnight shelter or whatever where
there is no religious conviction. One criticism I would have… Well,
it’s none of my business.

Go on.

I come across some evangelical Christians who seem to be so
preoccupied with saving themselves they seem to have lost sight of
the rather bigger picture that we’re all – what’s the expression? –
members one of another. Some of them don’t seem to give a flying
fuck about the rest of the world! I find it very trivial. Over the
years, I’ve got to know a lot of people who are living on the
streets, dealing with drug addiction, alcohol problems, whatever it
is, and the most striking characteristic of all of them is how
incredibly thin is the line between the kind of settled, ordered
life that you or I lead and the complete and utter bloody chaos
into which they have descended. All it takes is something like a
family breakdown, losing a job, a row with your parents and it’s
really easy suddenly to find yourself without a roof over your
head. And that, I think, is something that we all ought to be
cognisant of, because these people, you know, are just us. The
homeless, the mentally ill, they’re not ‘them’, they’re us! And
this is the key thing that we have to get hold of: we’re all ‘us’.
Yeah, sorry, it sounds as if I’m getting on a soapbox. I don’t mean
to.

It was only a couple of generations ago, wasn’t it, that members
of your own family were in such a plight.2

Yeah, I suppose so. But I’m not seeking… I’m uncomfortable
talking about my own family, and I don’t want to tempt fate. I’m
familiar with all the old aphorisms!

There are two worlds you are most associated with: the media and
politics. Does either of them give you hope?

I think that politics in this country is in a terrible state. A
really, really terrible state. It’s quite obvious what some of the
changes need to be, but they are not of the kind proposed by that
fool Russell Brand.3 They are not disengagement. I believe
profoundly in politics. I don’t think we have any other way of
sorting out our differences, short of violence, and I’ve seen
enough violence to know that it’s a very, very bad thing.

What are the ‘obvious’ changes that need to be made?

Well, we need to absolutely get away from this idea of a
professional political class. I mean, I would start with the
basics: don’t let people go into politics until they’ve done
something else and don’t let them stay in politics for more than a
maximum of two parliaments, maybe. Get rid of the House of Lords –
anybody who wants to have a say in telling others how to live has
to be elected. We have to transform the idiom in which politics is
being conducted. You know, if you and I were talking as mates we’d
probably disagree about a whole pile of stuff [but] we would sit
down and discuss it. We would not stand on our hind legs and shout
at one another. I find that pathetic! I’ve always rather liked the
first-past-the-post system, because I like the idea of a connection
between a constituency and a particular politician; but I think we
probably have to change that, reluctantly.

But most essential decisions are binary, aren’t they?

Well, they are and they’re not. The really stupid thing about
our politics is that some clown stands up there and presents you
with a binary choice: ‘There are two ways of looking at this: my
way and my opponent’s way. My way is right; my opponent’s way is
wrong.’ Well, life’s more complicated than that. Life is really
complicated, and when you vote – I don’t know, you may be a tribal
voter, but I hope you’re not – you will make a judgement on the
balance of advantage and disadvantage to yourself, your family,
your community, your country, maybe even the world; but it’s a
nuanced judgement. You don’t say, ‘Everything Party X stands for, I
agree with 100-per-cent’ – which is what the candidate has to
claim. I find that idiotic, really idiotic!

My sense is that when the bishops call for a ‘fresh moral
vision’ in politics, as they did in their recent open letter,4 you
have a lot of sympathy with that.

Ye-es. Yes, I suppose so. I haven’t read it closely enough – I
was away at the time.

They were at once accused of being lefties, of course.

Of course! That’s the Church of England’s long and honourable
position. How can they be anything other? Where the newspapers are
wrong, and elements of the Tory party are wrong, is to assume that
it is a partypolitical position. I think you’ll find loads of
decent, wet Tories who – and there’s nothing wrong with being a
decent, wet Tory. There’s nothing wrong with being almost anything,
really, except a racist – that’s pretty bad, I think. But I think
you find in all parties the belief that we ought to be making a
better world.

But the media just want confrontation and conflict.

Yeah. Where does that get us? The assumption is always that
there have to be polar opposites.

How do you keep from despair?

Oh, I don’t keep from despair. I do despair quite a lot. I
suffer a bit from depression, but I’m afraid I don’t despair so
much about the state of the world. That would be to imply a greater
degree of altruism than I think I have. I wish I did care about it
that passionately. I think there’s something about getting older,
too. Rather to my surprise, I became 64 last year. I’ll be 65 in a
few months. This is very old! But the great thing ab-out it is, you
do learn to find things funny, to smile with wry amusement at the
latest idiocy of humankind. That is a great consolation. So, I
don’t despair of humanity. I’ve got quite a lot of faith in
humanity. I don’t have a great deal of faith in – I was going to
say ‘leaders’, but maybe I mean certain kinds of leaders…

Can we talk about faith of the religious kind? I think I’ve lost
my faith.

I wish I hadn’t. We had a conversation about faith a long time
ago and you said: ‘I’m just a mass of doubts and contradictions.’ I
think I’m no clearer, really. I suppose I’m – I’ve had to accept
the evidence of science. I mean, I know there are people who can
reconcile science with belief but I find it quite… When my
17-year-old son, who’s a scientist, says to me, ‘That’s not how it
works, Dad,’ I have to accept the force of his argument. Of course,
faith can only exist as long as doubt ex- ists. There is no
certainty. A friend told me a very funny story about [Cardinal] Basil Hume, a man I hugely admired. When they were planning that
ludicrous Millennium Dome, two senior officials went to see him and
said: ‘We’re going to have this “faith zone” in it. How do you
think we should represent God?’ And Hume said: ‘Well, I’m not sure
I’ve spoken to him that often’! And he crossed the room and pulled
off the shelf a children’s book about prayer. That’s the nature of
faith, I think, isn’t it? I do not believe in a greater power. I
wish that I did. And I accept that what I’m saying is itself a
statement of conviction – in the same way that Richard Dawkins
(who’s a mate) will admit that he cannot be certain that there is
no God, because that itself would be a religious conviction. So,
it’s all terribly, terribly difficult. I do have a tremendous
affection for the Church of England. I once said that it’s an
institution that believes that anything can be settled over a cup
of tea. It’s absolutely hopeless, but it’s great! I absolutely love
it! I think it’s slightly dying on its feet but I think it suits
us. When I concluded eventually that I didn’t have any faith, I
went to see the vicar and I said to him: ‘I think I should have the
courage to tell you this to your face. I will continue to bring my
daughter to Sunday school, but I’m not going to be coming to church
myself.’ He said, ‘Why is that?’ and I said: ‘Well, look, I don’t
think there’s anybody out there, you know.’ And do you know what he
said? He said: ‘Well, this is really positive!’ Now, I still don’t
know to this day what he meant – whether he meant ‘At least you’re
thinking about it’ or that the prelude to belief is unbelief. I
don’t know – but I thought it was really kind. A Catholic priest
would have said: ‘Think about your eternal soul! You’re going to
fry!’, that sort of thing. I like this about the Church of England
– it’s eminently thoughtful and reasonable, and intelligent people
can belong to it…

Do you ever pray, or have you ever had an experience you could
describe as ‘spiritual’?

I’ve prayed when I’ve been really scared. I suppose I’ve had
experiences I fancied were transcendental. I used to climb and walk
a bit, and sometimes in the mountains you can feel… If you’re out
fishing, for example, and you’re just alone with the river and the
birds and the trees, sometimes you can think: Does this betoken
something greater? Or is it just as it is? Common sense tells me
it’s just as it is; but I don’t know. I must be content in that
ignorance.

When we spoke a long time ago, you told me about your
conversation with the vicar and you said he had told you that he
thought you ‘got’ love but you couldn’t handle hope. What do you
think he meant by that?

I have no idea! What do you think he meant? I don’t know. I was
intrigued. Why, you come here with your fabricated conversation and
expect me to comment on it! This is the oldest trick in the tabloid
press book!

You clearly have quite a strong sense of compassion – I hope
so.

– but the essence of Christianity is not just being able to love
but the sense of being loved.

But if you deny the existence of the greater being, by
definition there’s no one there to love you. I have noticed this
about people who are right at the bottom of the heap in this
country, and I’ve noticed it about very poor people when I used to
go to wars: the comfort that comes from believing that there is
some greater being who looks after them. [Though] too often it
seems like it’s an excuse for indifference on the part of those who
ought to be doing something… Now, why do I say ‘ought’? I suppose
it’s the residue of an upbringing that was partly religious. I
mean, I had to go to the chapel every day at school and I suppose
some of that sticks with you. When I’m out with the dogs in the
morning and striding along (as much as anyone strides along at
64!), you sing things – and the things that you remember, of
course, are hymns. You can’t go through that intensity of years and
years and years of hymn singing and some of them not stick. I look
at young people now and I think: ‘What are you going to sing when
you’re old?’ The other thing, of course, is that they aren’t made
to learn poetry by rote. I mean, I can recite ‘[I Wandered Lonely
as a Cloud]’ and ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore [after Corunna]’

And the Twenty-Third Psalm?

Yes, I can – because I had to learn all those wonderful poems as
a child. And I think it’s a great help. ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh
from distant Ophir,/Rowing home…’5 Yeah, anyway.

You have an image as an inquisitor –

When I first went into the studio – because I couldn’t carry on
being on the road any longer, because I was too messed up by it,
really –

By Northern Ireland in particular?

No, actually it was after that, when I was going to a lot of
wars and I… Anyway, I didn’t learn from anyone how to do
interviews, I just asked questions that seemed reasonably direct.
If you have an opportunity, I think you should use it; and if the
opportunity is to ask questions, then damn well get an answer – or
let it be abundantly clear that no answer has been given!

You are stuck with a very particular persona: impatient,
irascible, a bit of a pantomime villain. Does that – I don’t worry
about it.

Does that describe you?

Well, of course not! But look, I’ve been around long en- ough to
realise that the media can really only live with one image of an
individual. So, Norman Tebbit, who is actually quite a thoughtful,
nice man, is always going to be the Chingford Skinhead. And the one
image they have of me – irascible or, you know, slightly
in-yourface – I know that’s not me, but I’m not naive enough to
think I can do anything about it. So, why worry?

It doesn’t bother you.

It doesn’t really bother me, no.

 

1 He reported from Belfast from 1974 to ’77, during the height
of the Troubles, and went to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon and
Uganda for Panorama (1979-1984). 2 As he discovered on BBC1’s Who
Do You Think You Are?, his mother’s mother grew up in abject
poverty in the Glasgow slums. His father’s father was orphaned at
10 and working at 12. See bbc.in/1CxTy46. 3 See bit.ly/1dKfpaF. 4
Who is My Neighbour?, a 53-page ‘open letter from the House of
Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England’, can
be found at bit.ly/17MyXRt. 5 The opening words of John Masefield’s
poem ‘Cargoes’. The other two poems referred to are by William
Wordsworth and Charles Wolfe. BIOGRAPHY

 

Jeremy Paxman was born in Leeds in 1950 and was educated at
Malvern College. He read English at St Catharine’s College,
Cambridge, where he edited the undergraduate newspaper Varsity. He
joined the BBC’s graduate trainee programme in 1972 and, after
‘making the tea on Radio Brighton’, reported from Belfast on the
Troubles for three years. In 1977, he moved to London and BBC1’s
Tonight. From 1979 to 1984, he reported for Panorama, most notably
from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Uganda and the United States.
His investigation into the death of ‘God’s banker’, Roberto Calvi,
‘Called to Account’ (1982), won the Royal Television Society’s
award for international current affairs. He then read the six
o’clock news, before stints on London Plus in 1985 and Breakfast
Time in ’86. He presented Newsnight on BBC2 for 25 years from 1989,
saying a final goodnight on June 18, 2014. He has hosted University
Challenge on BBC2 since 1994, and also presented Did You See…? in
1991-93 and Radio 4’s Start the Week from 1998 to 2002. He has
joined Channel 4 this year to present its coverage of the general
election, and grilled David Cameron and Ed Miliband in March on The
Battle for Number 10. He won Bafta’s Richard Dimbleby Award for an
‘outstanding presenter in the factual arena’ in 1996 and 2000
(being also nominated in 2001 and 2002). The RTS named him
‘interviewer of the year’ in 1998 and ‘presenter of the year’ in
2002 and 2007. He co-wrote with Robert Harris A Higher Form of
Killing (1982, 2002) and is author of Friends in High Places
(1991), Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life (1994), The English
(1999), The Political Animal (2003), On Royalty (2006), The
Victorians (2009), Empire (2011) and Great Britain’s Great War
(2013). He presented the tie-in series on the last three on BBC1.
He has honorary doctorates from Bradford, Leeds and the Open
University. He is a fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and an
honorary fellow of St Catharine’s. He is vice-chair of the Wild
Trout Trust and a patron of Sustrans and Caritas Anchor House. This
interview was conducted on February 24, 2015.

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