Is Jeremy Paxman too old to be grilling young politicians?
As commenters rally round 30-year-old Chloe Smith, former current affairs boss says age gap is becoming an issue
ALL THE TALK among political commentators following junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith's mauling at the hands of Jeremy Paxman suggested the Newsnight rottweiler was right to dig his fangs into the Westminster pipsqueak's soft white flesh and that Chancellor George Osborne was a miserable coward for not facing Paxo himself to explain his U-turn on the fuel tax.
But an alternative argument is emerging - that Paxman is not only a bully who should "stick to pulling the legs from spiders" as one commenter on this site put it, but that he's also a grumpy old man who shouldn't get away with attacking a politician less than half his age.
This raises the fascinating question - are the BBC's top political interviewers getting too damned old in an era when politicians are getting younger?
Samir Shah, the respected former head of current affairs and political programmes at the BBC, believes interviews led by the likes of Paxman and John Humphrys have become unfair because of the age difference.
The Beeb's veterans were already established interviewers when many of today's interviewees were still at school. "Most interviews are a mismatch: the boxing equivalent of a heavyweight versus a lightweight," says Shah.
"Knockabout has become the norm. The desire to make sport of a young politician is hard to resist."
Shah says it's too easy for the old-timers. "It takes something to set that [the sport] aside and focus on extracting things that really matter to people¹s lives, to ask the question that needs answering. Such questions may not be the ones that offer the best sport."
Shah, writing for The Spectator, recalls the days when the situation was reversed: when the leading interviewers were youngsters and the politicians were the ones with the grey hair.
Robin Day, for instance, was in his mid-30s when he interviewed the 64-year-old Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. David Frost was in his 20s, David Dimbleby in his 30s, when they began quizzing Cabinet ministers. In short, "the political class was a generation or two older than the interviewing class" and the tone was deferential.
While the deferential approach was "no good" for democratic accountability, the lack of respect now shown for young politicians is little better.
Shah's views look likely to chime with many commenters who took the side of Chloe Smith yesterday.
"I have no sympathy for the Government, or its minions, but this wasn't an interview by Paxman, it was a mugging," wrote Stan Smith. "He should be ashamed of himself... It was the performance of a grumpy old man who clearly thought he was entitled, in his grandeur, to behave disreputably in public. Strauss-Kahn springs to mind."
Commenter Singapom wrote: "Paxo overplayed his hand, made himself look bad. The line was fair - 'isn't this a knee-jerk decision by an increasingly incompetent administration?' - but it turned into personal humiliation in public, which is unpleasant to watch."
In the interest of balance, it has to be said that some still root for Paxman. "Paxo is a hard interviewer," said Jimbo responding to The Mole yesterday, "but this is a hard place to work and if politicians cannot add value to the situation, they should be harried and pushed. She [Chloe Smith] is doing a bad job, Paxo is doing his, but rather better."
Perhaps the real problem is not that the interviewers are too old but that the politicians are too young.
As Steve Richards writes in The Independent today, the recent spate of government U-turns has a lot to do with David Cameron and Nick Clegg being too young and inexperienced. Having spent no time in shadow cabinet or ministerial posts, "they soared to the top of politics far too early, half-formed as public figures".
Similarly, Chloe Smith became a junior minister after only two years as an MP and has little financial expertise. She worked at the accountancy firm Deloitte - but not, it transpires, as an accountant.
If the politicians had a little more experience and a few more grey hairs, they'd be a better match for Paxo and Humphrys.
To be discussed.