“Look,” says Jeremy Paxman sternly. “I am not going to get into the business of shitbagging my former colleagues if that’s what you want. As I say, I don’t see it. So I can’t give you a comment.”
Paxman, the former grand inquisitor of Newsnight – a programme he claims not to have watched for “ages and ages and ages” – is renowned as one of Britain’s toughest interviewers. He’s not the softest interviewee either.
Does he have a career highlight? “No, I don’t.”
A favourite interview? “That’s for others to judge.”
Who are the best interviewers on TV at the moment? “I don’t watch interviews on television.”
Emily Maitlis? Piers Morgan? “Yeah, I know who they are.”
Will GB News be a success in the UK? “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
Does he consider himself to be a sex symbol? “A what!?”
Neither was he the easiest man to tie down.
Less than 15 minutes into our Zoom conversation (in which Paxman – mop-haired, bearded and sporting a jazzy, patterned shirt – is jovial and relaxed as he speaks about his new podcasting venture), I realise I am interviewing a frozen image.
“Ha-a-a-a-llll-oo-oo-oo?” comes his voice through my headphones. “Ha-l-l-l-ll-ooo-?” And then he is gone.
A minute passes. Then two. Then ten. All the while, I silently smile into my laptop’s camera to ensure I’m there when Paxman reappears.
Half an hour later, at the second attempt and following an unanswered text, I get through to Paxman on his iPhone. “Sorry about that, chum,” he says breezily. We agree to continue our conversation two days later.
On Wednesday morning, a couple of hours before we’re due to speak again, Paxman’s agent emails: “Please call JP on his mobile. Computer not working.”
A quarter of an hour before the interview, Paxman emails: “William, I’m so sorry but they’ve managed to bugger up the lifts in my building and we’re having to evacuate. Bit of a circus. Can we push till tomorrow?”
Third time lucky. This time we speak over the phone, possibly because Paxman can’t get his computer working (“Oh, I could kill it”), but more likely because he doesn’t enjoy Zoom or FaceTime (“I hate video.”)
‘I have spent most of my life doing interviews with people who you know are transparently lying. And there’s no point in that’
Paxman’s newish podcast, The Lock In with Jeremy Paxman, was originally intended to feature interviews recorded in pubs. Lockdown meant that he was only able to make a handful of episodes in this way.
To date, he has hosted more than 20 guests, including author Lee Child, atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins and fellow broadcaster Clare Balding. The interviews are conversational, laid-back and far removed from the confrontational encounters that helped Paxman make his name at Newsnight.
“It’s a different sort of interview,” says Paxman, sipping a cup of tea during our original conversation on Zoom. “I have spent most of my life doing interviews with people who you know are transparently lying. And there’s no point in that.”
He says that he doesn’t “want to do that sort of discussion any longer,” adding: “I’m much more interested in exploring ideas with people.”
The Lock In, an Acast podcast, is made by a team of two: Paxman, the host, and producer James Bray (formerly of Newsnight). “There’s a cleanliness about that, and an honesty, I think,” says Paxman.
The host says he never considered making his podcast with the BBC – “there’s too much baggage there” – and that, although he’s been able to build up an audience of 30-40,000 listeners, the podcast is not currently much of an earner for him. “In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve had any money from it,” he says. “There may be some somewhere, but it’s not come my way.”
But Paxman says he is having fun. “That’s the only reason to do anything, I think.”
So was this a guiding principle through your career? “I don’t think it’s just that. You do things that seem interesting at the time.
“Obviously I’m an old geezer now – I’m 70 – and podcasting is a new form of broadcasting. So it was new to me, it was a novelty, and it seemed interesting to try to learn about it.
“What I have learned is that people like you to put in more of yourself than is the case in most dreary old broadcast interviews. They’re so ramrod straight, and they’ve got a poker up their bum, and they don’t express a point of view. And you should express a point of view, I think.
“I can understand why it would have been impossible and illegitimate for me to express my political point of view when I was doing it on the BBC. But one does have one.”
In the spirit of putting himself into the podcast, Paxman recently suggested the UK voting age should be increased and that people should be made to pass an intelligence test before they are allowed to cast their ballot.
“The problem is our fate is in the hands of idiots,” he explains. “I don’t want it to be in the hands of childish idiots as well.”
He also talks about his dog, Derek. “Oh, you know his name,” Paxman beams. “I’m very impressed. That dog is well known!”
Shortly after explaining why his dog is called Derek – “I just thought it was funny – my kids used to have a rule that all dogs had to have names beginning with D and be two syllables” – Paxman’s computer malfunctions.
‘I’ve done lots of really, really bad interviews’
Three days later and Paxman –wound up by computer issues, lift breakdowns and possibly by my pestering to rearrange this interview – is in a mood more reminiscent of his grumpy Newsnight demeanour.
How is he doing? “Okay, thank you.”
How is the computer? “Oh, I could kill it.”
So, you don’t like speaking over video call? “No, I hate it.”
That seems strange considering you’re a renowned broadcaster. “Yeah, it’s artificial, though – people pretend to be having conversations when they’re actually talking to the ether. Whereas I find ear-to-ear much more honest.”
Plus, he adds: “Zoom is completely rubbish. I find the sound quality on it terrible and I find it unreliable.” For the record, Paxman’s podcasts are compiled using local recordings made by the host and his guests, which goes some way to avoiding Zoom quality issues.
What are Paxman’s favourite podcasts? “I don’t really listen to them.”
Why start one then? “I like the idea of it,” he says. “I like going to a pub and having a chat with somebody. And this seems to me what this is.”
Do you have any regrets about spending a large portion of your career doing confrontational interviews? “No, I don’t.
“The thing about doing those news interviews is you’ve got very little time. If you’re lucky, you’ve got about three minutes. So you’ve got to lay down the terms of engagement and get them to accept them in the first question. And that means it’s very often a dialogue of the deaf. But I don’t regret it. I think to say, ‘What would you like to say to the nation today, minister?’, would be an absolute dereliction of duty.”
Did you have any low points? Do you think any interviews went particularly badly? “Very often,” he says. “I’ve done lots of really, really bad interviews. And I’ve gone home at night and I’ve beaten myself up about it, and then realised that it is what it is at the time. That’s all.”
Did you get better at not dwelling on mistakes later on in your career? “I always – I think I care too much.”
I suggest that lots of people probably dwell too much on professional shortcomings. “I think that’s right,” says Paxman. “I cared. I cared too much I think probably.”
Are you a sex symbol? ‘A what!?’
Paxman perks up when I ask him to give me some interview advice.
“Well, you’ve got to do your homework,” he says. “You’ve got to do your homework. And if you haven’t done your homework then no one’s going to help you, and you don’t deserve anybody’s sympathy.” (I silently congratulate myself on remembering the name of his dog.)
“You’ve got to do your homework,” he says again, “you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. And you’ve got to think in advance: What is going to be an unexpected way for me to approach this?
“The recitation of known facts and known approaches is completely pointless. If they’re expecting you to come from the left, come from the right. Humour is very often very valuable. You’ve got to think about these things.
“Do not come from the same direction as everybody else.”
Message received. I later pluck up the courage to ask Paxman: Are you, or have you ever considered yourself to be, a sex symbol? “A what!?” A sex symbol. “No! Have you?” Alarmed by the swift table turn, I panic and say that maybe I might become one later in my career. “Only a question of time, I’m sure.”
Several newspapers have identified Paxman as a sex symbol in the past. “Well, I think that’s their problem, not mine,” he says. “It’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?”
Did you go into many interviews underprepared? “Oh, frequently. Frequently. When you hear an interviewee say something patronising like, ‘I think when you’ve thought about it a little more you may decide that’s not a very well informed thing to say.’”
Newsnight? ‘My idea of a good time is to be in bed by 10.30’
Paxman is probably best known across the UK as the quizmaster on the BBC’s University Challenge, a position he still holds today. But for journalists, politicians and current affairs enthusiasts, Paxman will always be remembered for his 25-year stint on Newsnight.
His confrontational interviews with politicians and other public figures regularly made headlines. Arguably his most famous encounter came in 1997 when he asked then-home secretary Michael Howard the same question – “Did you threaten to overrule him?” – 12 times (see clip below).
Paxman left the programme in 2014. Now he claims to no longer watch Newsnight. “I’m afraid my idea of a good time is to be in bed by 10.30.”
When was the last time he watched it? “Oh, God. Years ago.”
Really? “Yeah. I haven’t watched it for ages and ages and ages.”
Do you miss it? “No. Not in the slightest.”
Do you still think it’s a good programme? “Look, I am not going to get into the business of shitbagging my former colleagues if that’s what you want. As I say, I don’t see it. So I can’t give you a comment.”
It seems surprising you don’t watch it, I say. “Why?” he demands. “I’ve told you my idea of a good time is to be in bed by 10.30. Why do you think it’s surprising not to watch it?”
Because you’re interested in the news. “Quite interested. But only quite. Most news is stuff you don’t need to know. And therefore it behoves us all not to pay too much attention to it. News ought to be stuff that you can do something about. If you can’t do anything about it then, you know, why bother?”
Paxman has subscriptions to the Financial Times, Guardian and Times – suggesting he is more interested in news than the average person. “Well, maybe.”
Who are the best interviewers on TV nowadays? “I don’t watch interviews on television. I hardly watch television.”
Emily Maitlis (the Newsnight presenter who was named interviewer of the year at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards)? Piers Morgan, who left Good Morning Britain shortly after this interview? “Yeah, I know who they are.” Are they good interviewers? “Well, it’s not my job to sit in judgement upon others.”
Do you think the combative interviews that you and former Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys were known for are a thing of the past? “You tell me.”
BBC bosses at various times have suggested confrontational interviews are no longer palatable.
“Sometimes you need to be a bit persistent,” says Paxman. “Sometimes you need to say what’s what. And I do not think you need to do that unnecessarily. I do not think you should do it with no pretext or no context. But I do think that sometimes it’s necessary.
“And the fact that some lame brain in the BBC issues an ex-cathedra judgement like that is rather pointless I think.”
Paxman still pays his licence fee (“I enjoy documentaries and thrillers and sport and so on”) but does not believe the BBC “can possibly survive in its present form, funded by a tax on a bit of living room furniture.
“But there are ways. It’s quite clever – it’s full of clever people. And it’s full of people with enough ideas, it seems to me, to save it. It’s perfectly possible, it seems to me, to encrypt the signal so that it’s only decrypt-able by those who pay their licence fee.”
At peak, Paxman is reported to have been paid £1m a year for his work across Newsnight and University Challenge. Does he feel he was ever paid too much? “No. Do you?”
Will GB News, the Andrew Neil-fronted channel that is being billed as a Fox News for the UK, be a success? “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” GB News, I repeat. “Well, good luck to you. I will wait in judgement. I will judge by what it is. You’re judging by what someone has said about it in advance.”
Have you been approached to work with GB News? “No, I have not.”
‘There are a lot of people who think I’m a wanker, and good luck to them’
Unlike many other journalists, Paxman is not on Twitter (although his podcast has a promotional account). Does he use any social media? “No. I use no social media of any kind.”
Why not? “Because I find it’s an occupation for people who have got nothing going on in their lives. And very little going on between their ears. It’s quick and it’s nasty.”
Do you ever Google yourself? “I have done.”
What did you think? “Not a good thing to do usually.”
Do you keep an eye on news articles about you? “No, I don’t keep an eye on it! I couldn’t give a shit what people want to write about me.”
Do you enjoy being a celebrity? “I don’t think I am a celebrity. What is a celebrity? I go on the Tube, I walk down the street perfectly normally, I go on the bus – I mean, what’s the big deal?”
Do you consider yourself to be woke? “Certainly not.”
Why not? “Well, I’m never quite clear what woke is. You’re required to adopt a certain set of prejudices, aren’t you? And I don’t buy any package deal.”
So you don’t want to be labelled as woke? “Well, that’s your way of putting it, yeah.”
If you were starting your career now, what would you do? Would you still be a journalist?
“I just wanted to find things out. I think being a journalist is the only thing I could have done, probably, because I’m naturally curious and I love work. So that’s a perfect fit for me. But I don’t know that I would think that.
“I certainly would divest myself of a number of illusions. I thought that I was going to change the world by revealing things. And actually, the world is much less easily changed than you’d think. Some bits of journalism do change the world, and good luck to those people who achieve that. I’m not sure I ever did.”
Are you satisfied that you’re best known as an interviewer? “I don’t care what I’m known for.”
Well, are you satisfied that you spent much of your career interviewing people? “I think it’s an important job. But I think it’s up to others what they make of you.”
Have you made many lasting enemies? “Well, there are a lot of people who think I’m a wanker, and good luck to them.”
Is that fair? Have you been too much of a wanker to anyone? “I hope not. I really hope not. But they’re entitled to their view.”
Jeremy Paxman: ‘I don’t shitbag people. Particularly when one knows one has been shitbagged’
With my allotted time about up, I tell Paxman I don’t have any more questions. “Well, that’s good,” he says.
One more then. If you were on University Challenge, how many questions would you get right? “A small proportion.”
What proportion? “A guess is a guess, isn’t it?” Yes.
“I get – in fact, I’ve got them in front of me right now – the questions for the next set of recordings for the next round of University Challenge, and I always print them out and I always cover up the answer.
“And on that basis, I can get about half of them right. But then the number of times one is saying, ‘Yes, of course that’s the answer,’ when you’ve got it wrong in fact is probably much higher than one thinks. I would claim – I don’t know what I’d claim actually.”
I say 50% sounds pretty impressive –“yeah, but that’s a false memory probably” – and suggest he should appear on a celebrity edition of University Challenge. “I doubt it. I don’t think so. That is really an occupation for people whose common sense is smaller than their vanity.”
That was my last question – “alright, mate” – unless, I add hopefully, there is anyone you want to shitbag? “No. I don’t shitbag people. Particularly when one knows one has been shitbagged.”
Before we say our final goodbye, I remember that Paxman agreed to do this interview to talk about his podcast, so I think of a third final question that he should find agreeable. Could he put me in touch with his producer so I can find out a bit more about the podcast?
“No, I doubt it. Cheers. Bye.” He hangs up.