Laughing Along With Jeremy Paxman

PAXMAN. The name comes from the Latin, meaning “man of peace”, which does not fit the pugilistic image of its best-known living bearer. Neither did it suit him to discover, as a recent subject of the BBC’s genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? , that this moniker was contrived by a distant ancestor – a politician called Roger Packsman, who replaced two prosaic Anglo-Saxon letters with that magic “x” to enhance his appeal among the 14th century electorate.

As a proper noun it must now have power independent of its meaning. Why else would the author’s name appear on the cover of his new book, in purple block capitals, even bigger than the title? The spine reads simply: PAXMAN On Royalty.

“Does it really?” asks Jeremy Paxman, as if this is news to him. “Fire away with your indiscreet questions,” he has told me. (The King of Albania, descended from a ruling warlord called Zog, actually said this to Paxman himself during an interview for the book.) So my first is whether he had anything to do with the jacket design of On Royalty. “I had nothing to do with it, no. I assume the publishers know what they’re doing. I can’t draw or anything like that. Ha ha!”

It’s quiet in the mostly empty tearoom of London’s Langham hotel, so Paxman’s laugh – which doesn’t usually break out from the thin smiles he allows himself on Newsnight and University Challenge – sounds like a shotgun going off in snowy woods. I can feel myself flinch, and he might as well have shouted at me.

“Somebody remarked on this the other day Is my name really bigger than the title? I hadn’t noticed. I should have paid closer attention I suppose, ha ha.” Either Paxman is attempting to disguise the self-regard that he is often accused of, or he is exactly as he seems ­– a professional journalist slightly mortified by the suggestion that he thinks himself anything special. There is no point in giving him the benefit of the doubt, because he doesn’t want it.

Some of his fellows have seized on the thesis of On Royalty – that monarchy in the UK, undemocratic, illogical and archaic as it is, ought to be preserved ­– as an embarrassing ideological turnabout by a former republican. It is, in Paxman’s defence, possible to read his argument as essentially negative. He writes that nobody “devising a system of government for the 21st century would come up with what we have now”, but also describes the royal family as so steadily and rightfully stripped of worldly power that replacing them as heads of state would involve unnecessary “bother”. “Ah, ” says Paxman, “but that is not the extent of my view. There are also many positive benefits of having a monarchy.

“[Historian and former Marxist] Eric Hobsbawm pointed out to me that the more stable societies in Europe are monarchies. One is bound to ask if this is a coincidence, and I don’t think it is. Whatever we may think about them as individuals, embodying the nation in a human being, with human frailties, is a much more benign and comprehensible system than wrapping it in flags and anthems. And there is a great deal to be said for keeping the personification of the people out of the hands of politicians, whose electioneering slogans are based on propositions which they may or may not believe.”

The gist of this is that Paxman has indeed changed his mind. He used to have what he calls a “vague disdain for people who put their trust in princes and kings”. Now, after thinking, and asking, and writing about it, he doesn’t. “On the whole, ” he says, “I don’t see anything wrong with changing your mind.”

And this is something he would be prepared to accept from a politician on Newsnight? “Yes, of course I would. I remember interviewing Jack Straw on prisons policy when he was home secretary. I said ‘hang on, when you were in opposition you said this, and now you’re doing that’. And he said ‘yes, I’ve changed my mind’. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s not opportunistic. Refusing to change your mind is a sign you’ve gone to sleep, you’ve ossified. We should always be constantly rethinking things, re-evaluating things. Engaging with things.” Paxman says he’s blessed with “an ever-present sense of perspective”, which was sharpened by his early fieldwork for the BBC, sending investigative dispatches from 1970s Belfast and 1980s El Salvador.

Whenever tables are turned on him these days, as they were after last year’s general election – he was compelled to answer accusations that the pitiless scepticism of his questioning contributes to the degrading of national politics – he will wearily concede that certain critics “may well be right”.

He won’t discuss his own politics because the appearance of vociferous objectivity has become a job requirement. Paxman was a half-hearted member of the Labour Society at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, but the wealth he has accumulated since, from his combined salaries for Newsnight and University Challenge (seven-figure sums have been guessed at by tabloids and routinely denied) and bestselling non-fiction books such as The English and The Political Animal, hasn’t made him noticably conservative. And, while Paxman himself can seem ubiquitous, he keeps his wife and three children effectively invisible.

He is not, though, particularly evasive. At one point during the afternoon he shapes his hands into separate aircraft to illustrate the dynamics of a Newsnight interview. “Here is the journalist with a set of questions – here is the authority figure, not necessarily concerned with answering those questions. Sometimes they will meet, and you’ll get a satisfactory result. Often, they will just pass each other. It can happen that one is off the pace, disorganised, insufficiently prepared or rigorous, gets the wrong end of the stick, and you go home thinking you made a real mess of it. But that’s how it is, and nobody dies as a consequence of my making a bad judgement.”

Paxman stresses that he is not the authority figure in that transaction, and it irritates him when others treat him like some self-appointed king of the fourth estate. The only non-answer he gives today is when asked if he personally likes princes Charles and Phillip, whom he visited at Sandringham, by invitation, while researching the new book. “Look, the question of whether we like or dislike these individuals is neither here nor there.”

He says the work “matters” in itself, even while he and everyone else in the media are “incandescently insignificant”. This conviction makes him reluctant to accept that the book will probably sell on the strength of his name alone. “Oh I don’t know whether that’s true – I hope that people read it for the same reasons I wrote it. If they’re honest, they’ll admit to asking the same questions that began to trouble me. Royalty has always been with us, but why? And should it continue? Curiosity is my single greatest driving element. I don’t know why I became a journalist, other than to say that I like finding things out.”

He says he’s proud of the jokes he makes in On Royalty, a generally light-hearted book. “Monarchy is an incredibly fecund field when you look at it. What a catalogue of eccentrics, ha ha.” This jollity is difficult to reconcile with his Newsnight persona, like the admission that he feels nervous before every interview. “If you’re not nervous, then you won’t be anywhere near the top of your game when the red light comes on”.

This afternoon Paxman himself raises the subject of his tearful outburst on Who Do You Think You Are? when he learned that his Glaswegian great-grandmother Mary McKay was denied poor relief for bearing illegitimate children (whom she raised, along with his grandmother, in an east end tenement). “I’ve been around long enough to recognise that the media can really only accommodate one image of an individual. Things that challenge that picture are generally ignored. Nobody pays much attention to the Newsnight interviews, which simply convey information. They’re interested in the ones that turn into a bit of a dust up.

“And people may be amused about Who Do You Think You Are? , but I see nothing wrong with the fact that I cried. I knew when it happened that the BBC press office would make a big deal of it, because it supposedly showed the other side to this very straightforward view of me. I can’t control these things, and why would I want to?” I ask if his perception of himself was altered by that experience. Having written of an English tendency toward hypocrisy, and single-handedly coined the phrase “Scottish Raj” as a collective term for the many powerful Caledonians in Westminster, he suspects an attempt to catch him out.

“Am I scarred by being outed as a Jock, you mean? I’ve been expecting this! Come on, out with it man! Ha ha! The answer is no, not at all. I always knew that my maternal grandmother was from Glasgow. It’s tremendous fun to wind up the Scots but it’s all a bloody joke. Look, there is an issue about the preponderance of Scots in British public life, but that has to do with the nature of the Labour Party, and frankly, the high quality of the Scottish education system. So I say good luck to them. Good luck to them!”

What Paxman did take away from that programme was a sense that his family, like almost everyone else’s, struggled in darkness and poverty for generations, until the quality of life improved in the 20th century. “I get this uncomfortable feeling that we’re now at the end point of that period where it’s all going to go horribly wrong again. But most of us simply don’t know we’re born.” This makes me wonder if he ever wanted to do something different with his life.

The discursive pleasures of the prose in On Royalty, for example, suggest he might try fiction. “Oh, I got 20,000 words of a novel down once, but I binned the whole lot. It was a state of Britain kind of thing. I actually think it’s important to discover the things you can’t do.” He has no unfulfilled ambitions?

“Um – I’ve never planned my life. I’ve only ever done what seemed interesting at the time. I’d like to have spent more time fishing, I suppose, which is a pathetic ambition to have.” I’m now thinking this subject might be the bait to draw out something from the depths, but Paxman doesn’t really bite.

“I’ve often tried to anatomise the appeal of fishing, because it’s a foolish occupation really. Flailing around trying to irritate a stupid creature into snapping at the line. And yet it is stupendously, endlessly fascinating. The world turns around you in a way that it would not otherwise do. I can’t be more specific or satisfactory than that I’m afraid.”

Finally then, Mr Paxman, given the inexorable rise of superficiality, and our cultural fixation on youth and trivia, even within the venerable BBC, do you expect to retire when the time comes, or to be retired?

“Ha! You’ve been working up to that one! I have no idea. I’m just a freelancer, really. We’ll have to see. Ha! I really don’t know. I’ve never had much of a concern for a career though. It’s all curiosity. I want to know what’s happening in the world. Why is it like that? How does it work? All these questions in everyday life ­ how? When? Where? Who? What? They get me out of bed every morning.”

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