Shortly after retiring from front-line journalism last year, Jeremy Paxman came out of the closet as a “one-nation Tory”. This you might think would worry Labour, as the veteran broadcaster prepares to record two live interviews the leaders of the two main parties. But because of his reputation, nobody would ever suspect Paxman of anything other than the balanced and clinical scrutiny of an equal opportunities destroyer.
In many ways, Paxman and the style he represents have been a blessing to British politics. Especially when contrasted with the supine efforts of his American counterparts, who are never allowed to disregard the implied passive aggressive threats of being denied access to those power. Not only does the BBC offer politicians free expose to a politically diverse audience, (alien in the land of ideologically entrenched cable news and the sinister Super PAC) but it is also culturally domineering enough to demand the attention of politicians because it’s audience is simply too big to be boycotted. At the center of this there is the institution of the penetrating interview, perfected by Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Neil and John Humphrys. This is something to be celebrated, but we must also examine its flaws.
Paxman recently told an assembled audience that recent wrangling over televised debates was “pathetic” adding, “There is something completely stupid about the suggestion that they are integral to the constitution, which of course we don’t have.” He went on to say that “Sometimes you can get a lot further in a straight one-to-one interview.” But how true is this?
Tonight David Cameron will be interviewed by Paxman for 18 minutes. The same fate will then await Ed Miliband. If Paxman does his job well, both men will be severely scrutinised. It probably won’t be easy for either of them because both parties are involved in internal tug o’ wars which their leaders are bending over backwards to accommodate. As usual, the Tories have found themselves stuck between the parochial desires of middle England and the ambitions of their sponsors in the square mile. To make matters worse they have spent the last few years desperately trying to appease the “left behind generation” currently flirting with UKIP. They’re a mess and Labour isn’t doing much better. The changing economy has undermined their traditional industrial identity. They’re still funded in large parts by the trade unions but have struggled to protect workers in an evolving Labour market while simultaneously adjusting their economic policies to the winds of globalisation. When each party pleases one of these groups they instantly alienate the others and the political map is becoming as disparate and tribal as ever. The differences between ‘left and ‘right’ still exists as the philosophical distinctions between the preferences of the group and preferences of the individual. But this new environment, moulded more than ever my uncontrollable outside forces from across the seas, has twisted the leaders of mainstream parties into walking, talking contradictions. They can’t win.
Into this comes Paxman, with his disdainful questioning. I’m sure he will create great television as he always had done, but the only way it can of any tangible benefit is by avoiding the looming spectre of nihilism. The party leaders are many things but they are not, as many tend to believe, ‘just as bad as each other’. This is the laziest perception of politics in existence and the easiest interpretation for journalists, writers, actors and commentators to propagate. And it is capable of nothing. As a result, this cycle of cynicism is the predominant political delusion of our age and a blessing to those who would prefer it if important decisions were made away from the democratic process and public eye. It is the job of journalists to recognise this and debunk it. Until that happens, they have as much responsibility for our political crisis as the politicians themselves.