Jeremy Paxman: Grand Inquisitor or Court Jester?

In his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Neil Postman argued that intelligent discourse and serious debate were being eaten away by the introduction of televised news. An avid follower of the ‘medium is the message’ mentality, he believed that all content shown on television was ultimately sculpted by the box’s innate bias towards visual spectacles and entertainment values.

Based on the events of last week, it appears that Neil Postman’s vision has finally come true. In a landmark television interview, London’s elected mayor got together with a widely-respected current affairs journalist and conducted a televised political interview while riding a tandem bicycle.

I am of course referring to Jeremy Paxman’s final episode of Newsnight, the BBC’s long-standing political discussion program / seaside cabaret show.

Over time, Newsnight’s editorial team has come to understand – and ultimately embrace – the formulaic nature of entertainment television. Where once Jeremy Paxman’s rants were considered a rare treat (reserved only for those evasive interviewees worthy of collective scorn), they quickly became an on-going staple of the show. As the Newsnight team began to realise the rating-boosting impact of Paxman’s rants, the outbursts quickly increased in terms of both quantity, and comical contemptuousness. This in turn helped to transform Paxman from a serious news reporter, into a pantomime bad guy; a one-dimensional pit bull, barking one-sided questions without so much as listening to the answers.

While ultimately damaging the interview process, Paxman’s comedic super-villain façade also went on to encourage similar displays of integrity genocide thoughout the entire political schedule. Eventually, this resulted in moments of surreal televisual hilarity such as Andrew Neil “busting a move” (and potentially a hip) on the BBC’s This Week.

Perhaps for his own good, Neil Postman wasn’t alive to witness this performance. Nor was he alive to see the rise of the viral internet culture that ultimately sped on the demolition of serious news reporting. As a result of this culture, when Paxman rides around on a tandem bicycle, he’s no longer doing it for increased television ratings (as Postman predicted), he’s doing it to get on the homepage of YouTube.

In the age of Buzzfeed, only sex and humour really sell. And while the topic of Boris Bicycles can’t easily be “sexed up”, it can be turned into one big cynical joke. This is all that politics is good for now; not an opportunity to encourage change, but to laugh and sneer at the impotence of the system in place.

The worst part of all this is that no matter how much the news media wants to appear light-hearted, the truth is that the world they’re reporting on isn’t a light-hearted place. Somehow however, we’ve all grown accustomed to such callus juxtapositions. In true “now… this” style, Jeremy Paxman used his final episode to seamlessly switch between mass killings in Iraq, political responsibility for the destruction of Bagdad, and comedy bike rides with the London Mayor.

Given that Paxman represents the free media’s “Grand Inquisitor”, it’s depressing to note how little inquisition he achieved during an 8 minute interview with the face of London’s political system. In 8 minutes Paxman asked a total of 6 serious political questions, the answers to which he largely accepted at face value with minimal additional digging.

While it’s clear that this interview was not meant to be taken seriously, that in itself is a serious problem. When provided with the opportunity to speak to a politician (particularly one in such an important position), journalists and editors should be seizing every single second to raise a point. Instead, the entertainment format demands that they provide 3 minutes of semi-serious interviewing followed by 5 minutes of comedic relief.

In watching the Boris-Paxman debate, I had to ask myself: Where were the difficult questions? Where were the questions surrounding London’s housing crisis? Where were the questions surrounding the faux-enviromental nature of bike schemes from a government that has repeatedly sacrificed environmental concerns in exchange for business profiteering? Jeremy certainly wasn’t asking them. He was too busy laughing. We all were.

It’s all just so damn funny.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.