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Jeremy Paxman: The outsider

By Ian Burrell

It's been an awful year for the television industry, in which scandal after scandal has been uncovered showing how viewers have been duped by doctored footage or fleeced by fake phone-in competitions. None of the major terrestrial broadcasters has escaped with reputations intact, and certainly not Jeremy Paxman's employer, the BBC.

But the man himself is above all that, and if any broadcaster has the right to criticise the way television is heading, it's the 57-year-old presenter of BBC2's flagship news programme Newsnight.

In a rare public pronouncement, that's exactly what Paxman took the opportunity to do last night in a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival – the most important gathering of industry figures in the television year. He addressed a series of big issues: the fate of the licence fee, the reduction in BBC budgets, the relationship between television and politicians. And such is the respect that Paxman commands that, mere journalist though he may be, his words will have been absorbed and thought about by his audience no less seriously than if they had been uttered by the director-general himself.

The toughest questioner was providing some tough answers, his formidable reputation enhanced further. But that is not the only side to Paxman. There's also the side we see when he presents University Challenge, where his combination of warmth and exasperation has done much to revive the entertainment value of this ancient TV institution. But perhaps more than anything, what changed viewers' perceptions of Paxman was the moment, 18 months ago, when he was the subject of one of the programmes in the hugely successful genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?.

Of the countless politicians who have stumbled out of the lights of the Newsnight studios, embarrassed and exposed after being "Paxmaned" live on air before an audience of millions, there must have been many who dreamed of the day when this Rottweiler of political broadcasting was himself reduced to tears by the medium of television.

That moment came when Paxman was informed that his great-grandmother Mary had been left alone to bring up 11 children in a single-room Glasgow tenement and that her parish had revoked her application for poor relief on the grounds that she had an illegitimate daughter. He could take no more and started sobbing.

This was not the Paxman we had grown used to seeing late at night on BBC2. In the corridors of Westminster his reputation for combative interviewing is matched only by that of John Humphrys of Radio 4's Today programme. Newsnight producers are known to threaten political parties who try to wriggle out of a Paxman questioning with being "empty-chaired" and having no one to fight their corner as the programme's host makes an unchallenged case for the prosecution. But many of those who have taken their place before him under the lights may have wished they had taken the empty chair option.

Most famously of all, in the aftermath of the Parkhurst prison breakout of 1997, he set about the then Home Secretary Michael Howard. The broadcaster was at his victim's throat and refusing to let go as 12 times he asked Howard the same question, "Did you threaten to overrule him?" The Home Secretary insisted he had not overruled the Prison Service chief Derek Lewis but Paxman's emphasis was on the word "threaten".

To some it may have come down to semantics, and some even thought it disrespectful, but the sheer drama of the occasion – with a BBC presenter refusing to back down from the man responsible for maintaining law and order in the land – made Paxman's reputation as a journalist who would bow to no one.

Importantly, his style was acknowledged and admired by his peers, and he received a Royal Television Society Interviewer of the Year award for the way he had conducted the remarkable interrogation. He had previously been given the prestigious Richard Dimbleby Award for Outstanding Presenter in the Factual Area by Bafta.

He is pretty much a BBC lifer, having joined the corporation 30 years ago. Though Who Do You Think You Are? had revealed the modest origins of both sides of his family, he had grown up in Yorkshire as the son of a factory manager and enjoyed a privileged education, attending Malvern College and Charterhouse, before reading English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Before he was made aware of the poverty suffered by his ancestors he had expressed discomfort that his upbringing had been so comfortable. "There is something at the back of one's mind telling one that we have had it very easy and that we have not been sufficiently appreciative of our parents's generation who didn't have it very easy."

At the BBC he found his way, via reporting roles on Panorama and Tonight, covering hot spots such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, to a presenting role. After brief periods hosting Breakfast Time and the Six O'Clock News, he joined Newsnight 18 years ago, and has since become synonymous with that programme.

To the man in the street he is "Paxo", a nickname that calls to mind a puffed up, clucking fowl. The satirical show Spitting Image, in its later years, produced a latex puppet of the presenter and portrayed him as being very pleased with himself. Sometimes there is something theatrical about his presenting style, frowning at one response and looking aghast at the next, as if listening out for the response of his audience.

Indeed, colleagues have noted that before he goes on air he appears like an actor, withdrawing into himself in an attempt to draw out his best possible performance and then subjecting himself to deeply self-critical analysis at the conclusion of the programme. Some think that this is an indication that he is wrestling with demons of self-doubt, a process that gives an intensity to his questioning of others.

He is far more private than many of his colleagues; he does his charity work without fanfare and habitually declines to do interviews for fear of speaking out of turn and incurring the wrath of his BBC bosses. Though he agreed to address the Edinburgh Festival before some of the latest television scandals came to light, his willingness to give the annual MacTaggart Lecture suggests that he has felt for some time that there are deep-seated problems within the industry. Some in the television business had arrived in Edinburgh still telling themselves that the industry's annus horribilis was an exaggeration, largely concocted by a jealous print media.

Paxman's warnings say otherwise. To Channel 4's Jon Snow, who has known Paxman since the pair worked together in Central America in the 1980s, the Newsnight presenter is "the best in our trade by a very long shot" who has "enlivened the entire business and created a bit of the jungle that is his alone". Snow believes that Paxman has no political allegiances and that his journalism is all the better for that.

Even so, some colleagues have suggested that Paxman is never quite satisfied with his working life, that somehow the senior figures that inhabit his part of the jungle at the time that he finds himself on this planet are not quite scary or exciting enough, and that snaring a common-or-garden junior minister and mounting his head on the wall is really not much of a prize at all.

Paxman, during the era of John Birt, created some nervousness among senior BBC executives that his aggressive style was putting viewers off. The presenter once asked an under pressure Chancellor Norman Lamont if he would miss his job. But it now appears Paxo has some sympathy with Tony Blair's notion that allowing politicians to be mauled by a media that acts like a pack of feral beasts is not healthy in a democratic society.

One of the phrases most associated with Paxman is one he is said to think of whenever approaching a political interview: "Why are these lying bastards lying to me?" More recently he has been at pains to point out that the expression actually originates with a journalist from The Times and, furthermore, that is not his starting position. "Do I think everybody you talk to is lying? No I do not. Only a moron would think like that."

With his appetite for politics and the popularity he undoubtedly enjoys it is perhaps not surprising that Paxman once considered standing for Parliament, though according to friends he "couldn't do it – buy the whole package, be tactfully polite when your conscience tells you not to".

He is more comfortable writing. His best-selling book The English is an A-level set text and the acclaimed author Robert Harris is a close friend and an admirer of his writing, even comparing Paxman (who as a young man described himself as a "socialist" and applied to edit the left-leaning New Statesman) to George Orwell. Harris too is unable to pin down Paxman's politics.

Though being Paxmaned has been compared to being hit with a baseball bat, Tony Blair elected to be interviewed by him when he agreed to face the nation on television in 2002. At the conclusion of the broadcast, the number of viewers who complained that the interview was too soft was the same who said it was too tough: eight.

Though he lives in comfort in an ancient Oxfordshire village, with his partner Elizabeth Clough and their three children, he likes nothing more than to stand up to his waist in cold water fishing for salmon and trout.

Instantly recognisable though he is, Paxman still considers himself as anti-establishment, as an outsider, and the British public trusts him to tell it like it is. Having asked him to inspect its state of health, the British television industry cannot afford to ignore his prognosis.

A Life in Brief

Born: Jeremy Dickson Paxman, 11 May 1950.

Education: Charterhouse School, Surrey, and St Catharine's, Cambridge (English).

Career: Became a reporter on Panorama in 1979. During this period he wrote A Higher Form of Killing with Robert Harris, a history of chemical and biological warfare. He joined Newsnight in 1989, shortly before the publication of his portrait of the British establishment: Friends in High Places. He has hosted University Challenge since 1994. He was awarded the Richard Dimbleby Award, Bafta's most prestigious award for current affairs, in 1996 and 2000. In 2002 he was named presenter of the year at the Royal Television Society Journalism awards.

He says: "Did you threaten to overrule him?"

12 times to Michael Howard, Newsnight, May 1997

They say: "I talk to Jeremy on a daily basis about new media and new technology. We have a robust and entertaining exchange of views on the subject. We don't completely see eye to eye on it but I think deep in his heart he knows I'm right."

Newsnight editor Peter Barron

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