Jeremy Paxman: broadcasters ‘pathetic’ in stance on leaders’ TV debates

BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky’s proposals to parties branded ‘complete shambles’ by presenter who would have hosted one of the live debates

Jeremy Paxman has accused broadcasters of acting in a “pathetic high-handed” fashion over the proposed TV leaders’ debates – even though he would have been an integral part of one of them.

Paxman described the negotiations over the pre-election debates, which were finally completed at the weekend nearly six months after the proposals were first published by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, as a “complete shambles”.

The former Newsnight anchor will interview David Cameron and Ed Miliband for the first of the TV leader election programmes on Thursday, to be jointly broadcast by Channel 4 and Sky News.

But the two party leaders will be interviewed individually by Paxman, with Kay Burley moderating questions from a studio audience, rather than the head-to-head between the prime minister and Labour leader as originally envisaged by broadcasters.

Paxman said: “It seems to have been a complete shambles.

“I thought the broadcasters behaved in a pathetic high-handed fashion. There is something completely stupid about the suggestion that they are integral to the constitution, which of course we don’t have.

“All broadcasting exists by issuing invitations to people and if they accept the invitation you can make the show. If they don’t accept the invitation, you have to think of something else.”

Labour accused Channel 4 and Sky of backing down on a pledge to “empty chair” the prime minister after he refused to take part in more than one seven-way leader debate, that will be broadcast on ITV on 2 April.

But Paxman, who will be one of the faces of Channel 4’s coverage of the election, said he agreed with Lord Grade, former chairman of the BBC, who accused broadcasters of “bullying” politicians.

“I thought Michael Grade was right in his criticism. He’s not alone in the industry thinking the broadcasters were high handed,” Paxman told Ad Week Europe in London on Monday.

“If you can’t get people to take part in one format, then you have to think of another format. That is one of the really big problems with television staging anything, once you get beyond the realm of reporting into production, you have to have willing participants.”

Asked whether he would not prefer to be overseeing a head-to-head debate between Cameron and Milband rather than interviewing each individually, Paxman said: “I’d like to see that and it will happen [on ITV, in a debate featuring seven party leaders].

“It’s a different sort of vehicle,” he added. “Sometimes you can get a lot further in a straight one-to-one interview than you can in a debate. Often you get a lot of point scoring … which is not terribly helpful.

Asked whether his own politics – he has described himself as a “one-nation Tory” – affects his ability to do his job, Paxman said: “I hope not … I just don’t think it’s got anything to do with it.”

Paxman, who was invited to see Cameron to discuss becoming the next Conservative candidate for mayor of London, said it was a “mistake” not to have turned down the offer earlier.

“I can’t be responsible if somebody comes to you with a suggestion,” he said.

“I would suggest you are sufficiently well-mannered to say, that’s awfully nice of you. I will have a think about it and get back to you. That was a mistake; I should have said get out of here.”

He also confirmed he was approached by the Conservatives to stand as a Tory MP in Kensington and Chelsea in west London. “I was tapped up about it, yes. I don’t have any regrets about reaching the decision I made.”

He added: “I think it’s terribly hard to achieve impartiality. I think fairness is important, but I don’t know whether impartiality is every really truly achievable.

“The definition of impartiality is a terribly hard thing to arrive at. As long as people know where individuals are coming from, that’s probably adequate.”

Asked which politicians were best at dealing with the media, Paxman said: “Cameron is very effective with the media but you would expect that from a PR man, wouldn’t you?”

He also highlighted two other Tories – former defence secretary Philip Hammond (“a very effective technique for dead batting things”) and former Conservative leader William Hague, who he said would be a “loss to politics, tremendously impressive, a very smart guy”.

When it was pointed out he had not mentioned Labour leader Miliband, Paxman said: “How very astute of you … David Miliband was very accomplished. I think [Ed] Miliband’s all right, he’s not a bad bloke but then they very rarely are.”

On the future of the BBC, Paxman said there was “clearly a problem with the licence fee, a tax on ownership of a television cannot last indefinitely when there is no distinction between one screen and another kind of screen”.

But asked what he thought of BBC2’s Newsnight since he left it last year, he said he did not stay up late enough to watch it. “My idea of a good time is to be in bed by half past 10.”

“It’s interesting as to how long that sort of broadcasting will survive,” he added. “The only way that kind of broadcasting can survive is if it’s almost appointment to view stuff, I’d better switch it on because I don’t know what I might miss.”


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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