Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.


John McGurk

In the end it was like a death in the family while, as Jeremy Paxman may even have said himself, the reality was “Old Man Retires From Job.”

Paxman reportedly wanted little fuss but his leaving Newsnight seemed to be trailed all over the place with clips from his final interview on a tandem with Boris Johnson.

Even his rivals got in on the act with Paxman being interviewed on Channel 4 News, where he confessed no understanding of social media, and which ended with his anchor-man rival Jon Snow performing a musical ditty for our amusement entitled “Paxo Please Don't Go!”

His appearance with the London Mayor turned out to be more of a pantomime than an interview as they peddled around the City disrupting ordinary lives and making jokey comments about each other.

Boris sarcastically referred to Paxman as an “adornment to broadcasting” while The Great Man continually moaned about the Mayor's inability to guide the machine properly.

Even old adversarial politicians joined in the fun: there was Baron Mandelson of Foy supposedly defending his party leader Ed Milliband, but also putting the boot in, while Michael Howard, who famously was asked the same question by Paxman 12 times, popped up to be put on the spot for a 13th time.

Paxman, in his concluding remarks, quoted the “mad as hell” line from the film Network about the bizarre world of television news before the credits rolled with the New Seekers song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”.

And just when we thought he'd gone, suddenly he appeared again against the weather map and, in his usual disdainful style, quipped: “Tomorrow's weather: more of the same. Don't know why they make such a fuss about it.”

Ironically, the show had its biggest audience in three years with 1.1 million apparently tuning in no doubt hoping for the unexpected.

What are we to make of all of this? And what does it tell us about television news shows?

It does seem clear that after the Saville and Lord McAlpine scandals, which immersed his programme in scandal and fecklessness, Paxman has been unhappy about his continuing involvement with Newsnight which he had presented for 25 years.

There are those who wonder whether the programme can continue without Paxman's individual style because when he doesn't appear as the host, the show misses him and viewing figures slump.

He doesn't pull it off every time, of course, because Newsnight can often be deadly dull even when he is there but lately he's been showing signs of weariness and fatigue.

When he grew a beard last year, it was surely the first sign of outward rebellion.

The second was his interview with Silvio Berlusconi when, as if demob happy, Paxman asked the former Italian Prime Minister if he had insulted Angela Merkel with a shocking comment about her backside and lack of sexual attraction.

Paxman was apparently reprimanded after slagging off colleagues when he said: “There's a pile of stuff on the BBC I can't stand. My idea of hell is going down in one of those lifts in that ghastly new building (New Broadcasting House) in a lift which has Radio 1 Extra plumbed into it. I don't quite understand why the BBC does Radio 1 Extra.”

Thanks mainly to the techniques of the late Robin Day, clearly adopted and embellished by Paxman, shows such as Newsnight have come a long way since Prime Ministers were virtually handed the microphone and asked what message they wanted to impart to a grateful nation.

But there can be little doubt that, nowadays, the political interview is too often a waste of the licence fee; interviewers are determined to skewer politicians while politicians have been trained to say nothing resulting in a modern gladiatorial contest where audiences are none the wiser.

It has long been realised that serious stuff on television should also be a performance and that those taking part need to provide a large shot of showmanship to keep viewers interested.

Programmes such as Newsnight, with aged and diminishing viewers, are becoming old hat while irreverent shows such as Have I Got News For You and the Jon Stewart Daily Show have demonstrated that the way to build new and younger audiences is to regard news as sheer entertainment.

Following Paxman's exit, it may well be that Newsnight's days are numbered. Besides, who in Scotland really wants to watch 50 minutes of it after suffering 30 minutes previously from Scotland 2014 which, despite the fanfare, has so far done little to excite or inform the nation in our hour of need?

I suspect that Paxman has recognised that the writing is on the wall and that he should get out while he is still well regarded and popular.

The fact that he is lined up to present a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August also suggests that even he is now more interested in comedy and satire rather than old fashioned news dissemination or inquisitorial interviews which, more often than not, lead nowhere.

Handled cleverly, a lot of news can be fun while shows which demonstrate this are more likely to get interviewees to let slip when their guard is down.

Maybe they should replace Paxman with someone like Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross and get Fred MacAulay, or a comedian, to front Scotland 2014.


John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and was managing editor of The Daily Telegraph.

[email protected]

[PS. In case you’ve forgotten just how good Paxo was in his heyday, here’s the Spectator’s replay of  some golden moments – ED]