acquired a reputation as Britain’s most fearsome inquisitor over 25 years as a presenter on Newsnight on BBC2. Andrew Graystone met him in Salford on 24 February 2015 between bouts of University Challenge.
‘That is the best interview with me that I have ever read!’ he wrote to us afterwards. ‘Thank you for being fair and thoughtful.’
Photography: Andrew Firth
I suspect that you don’t much like talking about yourself.
No, I hate it. I’m a journalist, and a journalist’s job is to find out what others are doing, not to talk about themselves. It seems to me the acquisition of understanding is very different to the expression of opinion. It may, in fact, very often be the absolute antithesis.
Why did you first decide you wanted to be a journalist?
The real bugger about life, of course, is, you can only understand it looking backwards but you have to live it looking forwards. Looking back, I can see that journalism was a natural fit, because I like finding things out and I love words; but it didn’t seem like it at the time. At the time, I didn’t know really what I was doing and I applied for all sorts of things and was turned down by every single one of them – including loads of journalistic things.
What other lines of work did you try to get into?
All the usual stuff: the Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service, commerce, industry…
What were the values you brought to journalism?
Well, you know, we’re all guilty of vanity, aren’t we? I used to think – particularly when I first went to Northern Ireland, and then when I was covering conflicts elsewhere in the world that a lot of people did not wish to go to1He reported from Belfast from 1974 to ’77, during the height of the Troubles, and went to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Uganda for Panorama (1979–1984). – that if I don’t go and speak the truth as I find it, then someone else will and they may see something different. Or maybe no one will go. So, I don’t want to sound messianic about it, but that was my motivation.
You didn’t just want to be a reporter, you wanted to make a difference?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, shining a light is very often allied to a desire to change things, and I did want to change a lot of things.
I don’t know that journalism is necessarily the best way of achieving that. There comes a point in life when you realise that your destiny is really to be an observer, to stand on the sidelines. I didn’t really have any desire to get on the pitch. I found that the difference between me and friends who went into politics (for example) was that they wanted to tell others how to lead their lives, and I have never had that desire! I will try to lead my life in a certain kind of way, and I will form a judgement about how other people lead their lives; but I have never wanted to tell people how to live.
Most people are decent and, given a chance, will behave well. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my life in a trade that, essentially, convinces people that the reverse is true
Over the years, I have acquired quite serious convictions about human nature, and one of them is that most people are decent and, left to their own devices and given a chance, will behave well. I find it very unfortunate that I’ve spent most of my life working in a trade that, essentially, convinces people that the reverse is true! The bread and butter of the mass media is bad behaviour, aberrant behaviour – and the world is not like that. It’s the nature of news that it concentrates on the unusual. The usual, which is not newsworthy, is not transgressive, not threatening and not unpleasant, I think.
Are you a hopeful person?
Ah, well… I don’t know. I think I’m a naturally quite gloomy person. When I’d say to my mother, ‘How are you, Mum?’, she’d say ‘Oh, not so bad!’ in that characteristically downbeat Yorkshire way; and I think that may be what it is. I am accustomed to hearing the telephone ring and expecting it will be some catastrophe, you know? And of course it isn’t, most of the time.
So, am I hopeful? What do I hope for? Do I think we are inevitably progressing to a better world? I rather doubt it! I think there’s an awful lot to worry about in the world. There’s far too much importance put upon unimportant things. There are far too many of us in the world, and there are real, objective pressure points: access to water, access to energy. Population is a really, really big problem. Which is one of the serious issues I have with various religious institutions.
Your friend Christopher Hitchens criticised Mother Teresa because she advocated against birth control, didn’t he?
Well, Hitch enjoyed being an iconoclast.
I have very big problems with religious faith, I’m afraid, but I do know that very often religious people behave much better than irreligious people who are only concerned about themselves. It is striking how much charitable behaviour is religiously motivated. My particular charitable interests are homelessness and mental health, and a very large number of charities in that sort of field – the most visible being the Salvation Army, of course – see direct social action, with often very difficult-to-reach people, as an expression of their belief.
I think there has been a signal failure on the part of humanists, atheists, non-believers generally, to find an effective way of harnessing fellow feeling.
So, why do you think humanists don’t set up food banks?
They do, of course they do – but in my experience it’s unusual to find a soup kitchen or an overnight shelter or whatever where there is no religious conviction.
One criticism I would have… Well, it’s none of my business.
I come across some evangelical Christians who seem to be so preoccupied with saving themselves they seem to have lost sight of the rather bigger picture that we’re all – what’s the expression? – members one of another. Some of them don’t seem to give a flying fuck about the rest of the world! I find it very trivial.
I think that politics in this country is in a terrible state, but I believe profoundly in politics. I don’t think we have any other way of sorting out our differences, short of violence – and I’ve seen enough of that to know it’s a very bad thing
Over the years, I’ve got to know a lot of people who are living on the streets, dealing with drug addiction, alcohol problems, whatever it is, and the most striking characteristic of all of them is how incredibly thin is the line between the kind of settled, ordered life that you or I lead and the complete and utter bloody chaos into which they have descended. All it takes is something like a family breakdown, losing a job, a row with your parents and it’s really easy suddenly to find yourself without a roof over your head. And that, I think, is something that we all ought to be cognisant of, because these people, you know, are just us. The homeless, the mentally ill, they’re not ‘them’, they’re us! And this is the key thing that we have to get hold of: we’re all ‘us’.
Yeah, sorry, it sounds as if I’m getting on a soapbox. I don’t mean to.
It was only a couple of generations ago, wasn’t it, that members of your own family were in such a plight2As he discovered on BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?, his mother’s mother grew up in abject poverty in the Glasgow slums. His father’s father was orphaned at 10 and working at 12. See bbc.in/1CxTy46..
Yeah, I suppose so. But I’m not seeking… I’m uncomfortable talking about my own family, and I don’t want to tempt fate. I’m familiar with all the old aphorisms!
There are two worlds you are most associated with: the media and politics. Does either of them give you hope?
I think that politics in this country is in a terrible state. A really, really terrible state. It’s quite obvious what some of the changes need to be, but they are not of the kind proposed by that fool Russell Brand.3See bit.ly/1dKfpaF. They are not disengagement. I believe profoundly in politics. I don’t think we have any other way of sorting out our differences, short of violence, and I’ve seen enough violence to know that it’s a very, very bad thing.
What are the ‘obvious’ changes that need to be made?
Well, we need to absolutely get away from this idea of a professional political class. I mean, I would start with the basics: don’t let people go into politics until they’ve done something else and don’t let them stay in politics for more than a maximum of two parliaments, maybe. Get rid of the House of Lords – anybody who wants to have a say in telling others how to live has to be elected.
We have to transform the idiom in which politics is being conducted. You know, if you and I were talking as mates we’d probably disagree about a whole pile of stuff [but] we would sit down and discuss it. We would not stand on our hind legs and shout at one another. I find that pathetic!
I’ve always rather liked the first-past-the-post system, because I like the idea of a connection between a constituency and a particular politician; but I think we probably have to change that, reluctantly.
But most essential decisions are binary, aren’t they?
Well, they are and they’re not. The really stupid thing about our politics is that some clown stands up there and presents you with a binary choice: ‘There are two ways of looking at this: my way and my opponent’s way. My way is right; my opponent’s way is wrong.’ Well, life’s more complicated than that. Life is really complicated, and when you vote – I don’t know, you may be a tribal voter, but I hope you’re not – you will make a judgement on the balance of advantage and disadvantage to yourself, your family, your community, your country, maybe even the world; but it’s a nuanced judgement. You don’t say, ‘Everything Party X stands for, I agree with 100-per-cent’ – which is what the candidate has to claim. I find that idiotic, really idiotic!
My sense is that when the bishops call for a ‘fresh moral vision’ in politics, as they did in their recent open letter,4Who is My Neighbour?, a 53-page ‘open letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England’, can be found at bit.ly/17MyXRt. you have a lot of sympathy with that.
I do not believe in a greater power. I wish that I did. And I accept that what I’m saying is itself a statement of conviction. So, it’s all terribly, terribly difficult
Ye-es. Yes, I suppose so. I haven’t read it closely enough – I was away at the time.
They were at once accused of being lefties, of course.
Of course! That’s the Church of England’s long and honourable position. How can they be anything other?
Where the newspapers are wrong, and elements of the Tory party are wrong, is to assume that it is a party-political position. I think you’ll find loads of decent, wet Tories who – and there’s nothing wrong with being a decent, wet Tory. There’s nothing wrong with being almost anything, really, except a racist – that’s pretty bad, I think. But I think you find in all parties the belief that we ought to be making a better world.
But the media just want confrontation and conflict.
Yeah. Where does that get us? The assumption is always that there have to be polar opposites.
How do you keep from despair?
Oh, I don’t keep from despair. I do despair quite a lot. I suffer a bit from depression, but I’m afraid I don’t despair so much about the state of the world. That would be to imply a greater degree of altruism than I think I have. I wish I did care about it that passionately.
I think there’s something about getting older, too. Rather to my surprise, I became 64 last year. I’ll be 65 in a few months. This is very old! But the great thing about it is, you do learn to find things funny, to smile with wry amusement at the latest idiocy of humankind. That is a great consolation. So, I don’t despair of humanity. I’ve got quite a lot of faith in humanity. I don’t have a great deal of faith in – I was going to say ‘leaders’, but maybe I mean certain kinds of leaders…
Can we talk about faith of the religious kind?
I think I’ve lost my faith. I wish I hadn’t.
We had a conversation about faith a long time ago and you said: ‘I’m just a mass of doubts and contradictions.’
I think I’m no clearer, really. I suppose I’m – I’ve had to accept the evidence of science. I mean, I know there are people who can reconcile science with belief but I find it quite… When my 17-year-old son, who’s a scientist, says to me, ‘That’s not how it works, Dad,’ I have to accept the force of his argument.
Of course, faith can only exist as long as doubt exists. There is no certainty. A friend told me a very funny story about [Cardinal] Basil Hume, a man I hugely admired. When they were planning that ludicrous Millennium Dome, two senior officials went to see him and said: ‘We’re going to have this “faith zone” in it. How do you think we should represent God?’ And Hume said: ‘Well, I’m not sure I’ve spoken to him that often’! And he crossed the room and pulled off the shelf a children’s book about prayer. That’s the nature of faith, I think, isn’t it?
I do not believe in a greater power. I wish that I did. And I accept that what I’m saying is itself a statement of conviction – in the same way that Richard Dawkins (who’s a mate) will admit that he cannot be certain that there is no God, because that itself would be a religious conviction. So, it’s all terribly, terribly difficult.
I do have a tremendous affection for the Church of England. I once said that it’s an institution that believes that anything can be settled over a cup of tea. It’s absolutely hopeless, but it’s great! I absolutely love it! I think it’s slightly dying on its feet but I think it suits us.
When I concluded eventually that I didn’t have any faith, I went to see the vicar and I said to him: ‘I think I should have the courage to tell you this to your face. I will continue to bring my daughter to Sunday school, but I’m not going to be coming to church myself.’ He said, ‘Why is that?’ and I said: ‘Well, look, I don’t think there’s anybody out there, you know.’ And do you know what he said? He said: ‘Well, this is really positive!’
Now, I still don’t know to this day what he meant – whether he meant ‘At least you’re thinking about it’ or that the prelude to belief is unbelief. I don’t know – but I thought it was really kind. A Catholic priest would have said: ‘Think about your eternal soul! You’re going to fry!’, that sort of thing. I like this about the Church of England – it’s eminently thoughtful and reasonable, and intelligent people can belong to it…
Do you ever pray, or have you ever had an experience you could describe as ‘spiritual’?
I’ve prayed when I’ve been really scared. I suppose I’ve had experiences I fancied were transcendental, you know? I used to climb and walk a bit, and sometimes in the mountains you can feel… If you’re out fishing, for example, and you’re just alone with the river and the birds and the trees, sometimes you can think: Does this betoken something greater? Or is it just as it is? My common sense tells me it’s just as it is; but I don’t know. I must be content in that ignorance.
When we spoke a long time ago, you told me about your conversation with the vicar and you said he had told you that he thought you ‘got’ love but you couldn’t handle hope. What do you think he meant by that?
I have no idea! What do you think he meant?
I don’t know. I was intrigued.
Why, you come here with your fabricated conversation and expect me to comment on it! This is the oldest trick in the tabloid press book!
You clearly have quite a strong sense of compassion –
I hope so.
– but the essence of Christianity is not just being able to love but the sense of being loved.
But if you deny the existence of the greater being, by definition there’s no one there to love you.
I have noticed this about people who are right at the bottom of the heap in this country, and I’ve noticed it about very poor people when I used to go to wars: the comfort that comes from believing that there is some greater being who looks after them. [Though] too often it seems like it’s an excuse for indifference on the part of those who ought to be doing something…
I didn’t learn from anyone how to do interviews, I just asked questions that seemed reasonably direct. If you have an opportunity, I think you should use it, and damn well get an answer
Now, why do I say ‘ought’? I suppose it’s the residue of an upbringing that was partly religious. I mean, I had to go to the chapel every day at school and I suppose some of that sticks with you. When I’m out with the dogs in the morning and striding along (as much as anyone strides along at 64!), you sing things – and the things that you remember, of course, are hymns. You can’t go through that intensity of years and years and years of hymn singing and some of them not stick.
I look at young people now and I think: ‘What are you going to sing when you’re old?’ The other thing, of course, is that they aren’t made to learn poetry by rote. I mean, I can recite ‘[I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud]’ and ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore [after Corunna]’ –
And the Twenty-Third Psalm?
Yes, I can – because I had to learn all those wonderful poems as a child. And I think it’s a great help. ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,/Rowing home…’5The opening words of John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’. The other two poems referred to are by William Wordsworth and Charles Wolfe. Yeah, anyway.
You have an image as an inquisitor –
When I first went into the studio – because I couldn’t carry on being on the road any longer, because I was too messed up by it, really –
By Northern Ireland in particular?
No, actually it was after that, when I was going to a lot of wars and I… Anyway, I didn’t learn from anyone how to do interviews, I just asked questions that seemed reasonably direct. If you have an opportunity, I think you should use it; and if the opportunity is to ask questions, then damn well get an answer – or let it be abundantly clear that no answer has been given!
You are stuck with a very particular persona: impatient, irascible, a bit of a pantomime villain. Does that –
I don’t worry about it.
Does that describe you?
Well, of course not! But look, I’ve been around long enough to realise that the media can really only live with one image of an individual. So, Norman Tebbit, who is actually quite a thoughtful, nice man, is always going to be the Chingford Skinhead. And the one image they have of me – irascible or, you know, slightly in-your-face – I know that’s not me, but I’m not naive enough to think I can do anything about it. So, why worry?
It doesn’t bother you.
It doesn’t really bother me, no.
This edit was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Third Way.
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|⇑1||He reported from Belfast from 1974 to ’77, during the height of the Troubles, and went to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Uganda for Panorama (1979–1984).|
|⇑2||As he discovered on BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?, his mother’s mother grew up in abject poverty in the Glasgow slums. His father’s father was orphaned at 10 and working at 12. See bbc.in/1CxTy46.|
|⇑4||Who is My Neighbour?, a 53-page ‘open letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England’, can be found at bit.ly/17MyXRt.|
|⇑5||The opening words of John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’. The other two poems referred to are by William Wordsworth and Charles Wolfe.|
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Jeremy Paxman was born in Leeds in 1950 and was educated at Malvern College. He read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he edited the undergraduate newspaper Varsity.
He joined the BBC’s graduate trainee programme in 1972 and, after ‘making the tea on Radio Brighton’, reported from Belfast on the Troubles for three years. In 1977, he moved to London and BBC1’s Tonight.
From 1979 to 1984, he reported for Panorama, most notably from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Uganda and the United States. His investigation into the death of ‘God’s banker’, Roberto Calvi, ‘Called to Account’ (1982), won the Royal Television Society’s award for international current affairs.
He then read the six o’clock news, before stints on London Plus in 1985 and Breakfast Time in ’86.
He presented Newsnight on BBC2 for 25 years from 1989, saying a final goodnight on June 18, 2014.
He has hosted University Challenge on BBC2 since 1994, and also presented Did You See…? in 1991–93 and Radio 4’s Start the Week from 1998 to 2002.
He has joined Channel 4 this year to present its coverage of the general election, and grilled David Cameron and Ed Miliband in March on The Battle for Number 10.
He won Bafta’s Richard Dimbleby Award for an ‘outstanding presenter in the factual arena’ in 1996 and 2000 (being also nominated in 2001 and 2002). The RTS named him ‘interviewer of the year’ in 1998 and ‘presenter of the year’ in 2002 and 2007.
He co-wrote with Robert Harris A Higher Form of Killing (1982, 2002) and is author of Friends in High Places (1991), Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life (1994), The English (1999), The Political Animal (2003), On Royalty (2006), The Victorians (2009), Empire (2011) and Great Britain’s Great War (2013). He presented the tie-in series on the last three on BBC1.
He has honorary doctorates from Bradford, Leeds and the Open University. He is a fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and an honorary fellow of St Catharine’s.
He is vice-chair of the Wild Trout Trust and a patron of Sustrans and Caritas Anchor House.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2015