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January 12, 2006

Richard D. North on Jeremy Paxman - Jeremy Paxman appears on Who Do You Think You Are?

Posted by Richard D. North

Who Do You Think You Are?
Jeremy Paxman appears on Who Do You Think You Are?
BBC2, 11th January 2006

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of the forthcoming Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - explains why he became very fond of Jeremy Paxman after watching him on Who Do You Think You Are?

I had better put my cards on the table. I suspect Jeremy Paxman of niceness. Now you have see him cry, on Who Do You Think You Are?, you may perhaps agree with this assessment. Alright, so he only cried when he found that routine Victorian and pre-Victorian misery was unleashed on people who happened to be his forebears, so his tenderness might be thought a species of self-absorption. And perhaps he was merely proving the not-trivial contention that everyone, without exception, strips to the soul on realty TV. Likewise, anyone is now likely to make roadside shrines to their dead: this isn't a matter of class or type, but of what's in the psychic water now.

Still, there he was: the grand inquisitor in a dead faint at the first sight of the thumb-screws. Having seen the show, you may be less than surprised by my long-held view that he is modest, shy and very self-critical. Still, the man's a menace.

Paxman and I have met perhaps three times in a quarter of a century, and two of those were in the conditions of heightened reality, hand-to-hand combat, suspended animation, armed truce and false bonhomie which characterise the Newsnight studio. He is always very nice to me, but I occasionally e-mail him to say that he has been unconscionably rude to some minor figure. And I am pretty free with my view that John Habgood, when Archbishop of York, was right to tell Paxman that the Culture of Contempt was corroding society and that he, Paxman, was a prime example of the phenomenon. As the man from Polite Society told him just before Christmas, Jimmy Young could get more out of a bloke.

This stuff matters because democratic politics faces huge difficulties simply by the nature of modern media. It would be tricky enough that there is something so intrusive snapping at the heels of public figures. Worse, being constantly under attack produces a political class with an even more light-reflecting carapace than was always required in leaders. The modern politician must know how to wrap himself in a transparency which is capable of absorbing and refracting inquiry.

The deeper problem is that whist the media is now the place where politics happens, the media don't choose the manner of their involvement. So, Jeremy Paxman is in an awkward position. He didn't make it the case that people would rather watch Newsnight than the BBC Parliament channel. He can't help being the most famous and signature anchor of Newsnight. He is no more at fault in these things than is the twerp John Humphrys to blame for being the star of Today. I say "the Twerp" Humphrys, and I pray in aid his appearances on Art School (BBC2, September 2005): if there is a kinder word which could be applied to a grown man who displayed those chippy hissy-fits, by all means let me know.

Jeremy (if I may presume) may believe that the little good he does in the world (and I believe he would make very modest claims for his contribution), depends on his abrasiveness. He would surely be right to assume that his Unique Selling Proposition must have something to do with his unique fame.

So yes, Paxman and Humphrys are our fault, just as we are to blame for Have I Got News For You and all the other circuses which bit by bit ensure we are less well ruled every day. We celebrate these goons and thus they thrive.

Of course, their job is really quite easy. They hold almost all the cards. Politicians have to dissemble, and interviewers have only to pretend to forget that dissembling is inevitable to be able to take the high moral ground when they poke away at this or that half-truth. The interviewers end up looking more clever, but also more moral, than their victims.

So it is delicious to find that Paxman is not up to much when the roles are switched. Up to his waders in some river or other, he sneered at what's on the box, but said that this show might be valuable as social history, so he'd do it. Yeah right, and the moment things get personal, this disinterested chronicler breaks up. Was he so lofty, na´ve, misinformed or stupid that he didn't know the show was high-end reality TV? If so, how much else does he know nothing about, and would it fit in the same lacuna as his ignorance about Poor Law, the dole, consumption and all the other routine stuff which seems to have slipped under his radar?

His angry ducks weren't remotely in a row. He affected to be angry, or was weirdly cross, with his interviewer for asking stupid questions as in:

Are you proud to be Scottish?
Ridiculous, snarled the nation's top snarler. One just is these things. Within minutes, however, he was opining that he was proud to be a Yorkshireman (which he isn't, in the way very few Brits are anything very pure). So when did the interviewer's question stop being pathetic and morph into the kind of thing we all discuss?

And then, and here's the bit which really sticks in my craw, he did what so many of these tinpot bullies do: he sneered at politicians. Looking back far enough, past denizens of the Salvation Army, and unemployed cobblers, and weavers and self-made men, his family tree turns out to include someone who might, just, be called a politician. Paxman rolls his eyes and says in effect that he has at last found someone of whom to disapprove. Does he not see that at its very, very best, his own trade stands to that of politics only as the mistletoe to the orchard? OK, perhaps he is in symbiosis rather than parasitism to his interviewees. Interviewers are, as it were, gleaner fish. But why can't he behave as though he understood that politicians are not only necessary, but play the more noble part in the game?

Perhaps he is simply the kind of liberal who is uncomfortable with the middle class success in his background. Perhaps, God help us, he is ashamed of his class. Perhaps this guilt has transmuted into the generalised dissidence which cripples our half-educated graduate cadre.

We don't need the answers to these speculations. What matters is that Paxman has shown us that he is no genius and has feet of clay. His outing on the genealogy show told us something about him as well as his family. He has allowed himself to be de-mythologised. Because of it, we can get the matchsticks of familiarity up the fingernails of his theatrical superiority.

Remember at the end of the show when he said he didn't care how people thought of him, or whether he was popular? That was a little like saying he wasn't interested in his audience and didn't care whether his contract gets renewed. We are free to doubt the seriousness of the remark. Anyway, you know that funny, irrational and absurd moment when a TV figure slips into one's heart? It happened with Paxman the other night. I became very fond of him and there's nothing he can do about it.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.


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