Is Jeremy Paxman too old to be grilling young politicians?

Jun 28, 2012
Nigel Horne

As commenters rally round 30-year-old Chloe Smith, former current affairs boss says age gap is becoming an issue

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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.

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So the public interest will be better served by matching lightweights with lightweights rather than the government actually being able to defend itself against heavyweight questioners? It may have been a mis-match but i think it shines a light on the ability of those who are representing us in Parliament. The dumbing down of accountability can't be a good idea.

There are two issues here.
The BBC has made a point of building up its various journalist anchormen and anchorwomen as stars in a way that suggests they do not like "pluralism" - it helps the brand to have just a few "noble" individuals and "royal" families like the Dimblebys. This is typical of British life where in many fields advantages are hereditary and you have a much harder time building a career in the media (including theatre and perhaps classical music) if you do not have parents with the money to buy you a flat in an OK part of the metropolis when you start out. A couple of decades back BBC Radio had a totally different line up of familiar names/stars from BBC television. many of them well established. Then the Beeb decided to use its big telly household names on radio as well (some like the Dimblebys dated back to pre-telly days anyway).
We do want expertise and occasional thuggish abilities in our interviewers - and Paxman is a lot better than Kirsty Wark who often seems to be missing the plot.
It is harder work for managements recruiting a broader spread of journalistic talents to do a range of jobs - though of course the talents are our there if they chose to look. But management thought limited brands and stardom and fame were all that mattered. How many politicians will lend themselves to a "Britain's got interviewing talent" comp? QED
Paxo is surely not so old that he deserves the nacker's yard. But why not have a bit more variety? So long as they don't risk dumbing down the only fairly intelligent news programme around: C4 has much the same problem, perhaps.

For heaven's sake -- it's not supposed to be a contest, with handicapping to give the weaker ministers a sporting chance.

If HMG can't find ministers capable of handling tough questioning by journalists, the solution, to my mind, is for David Cameron to find more capable ministers, if he is able, rather than for broadcasters to employ less capable interviewers.

What a ridiculous piece. You raging Liberals on the Week bang on about ageism
then promote with this non-story that's obviously of your own making. Age means
nothing, and if you're a politician, you are looking after all ages of voter,
so you are therefore accountable to all ages. Ridiculous.

Shall we sacrifice experience and knowledge so that young spotty doesn't look a fool in front of his/her chums? Don't worry about pressing for the truth or anything.

Tell you waht, lets get Newsbeat reporters from Radio 1.. they're young...

'Hey Chloe, let's forget the boring politico stuff - that's for your dad - why not tell what's packing your iPod'

If the snotty
precocious oiks can't stand the heat etc etc...

I am certainly NOT a fan of Paxman - I find him to be opinionated, arrogant and his own most ardent fan.

However, Chloe Smith was an odious example of a thrusting and over-ambitious young politician with (I would guess) very little experience of the real world. She obviously thought that by "stonewalling" Paxman's questions she could, somehow, wriggle out of answering those, very focussed and sharp, questions levelled at Osborne, through her; no wonder Osborne found "better things to do" that evening!

Unfortunately life is not like that, Miss Smith - if you want to swim in the cesspool of modern politics, you are going to encounter the occasional shark, in the form of Paxman, waiting to eat you up - I hope that you have learned your lesson here - either prepare your brief properly or suffer the manifest indignity of being exposed as a complete lightweight - Paxman is noted for his meticulous preparation of his interviews (after all, HE knows what is coming next!) - only a complete fool would enter the fray with him unprepared and at such short notice.

In terms of unattractiveness, this spectacle was up there among the best - an over-ambitious and under-prepared politician v an arrogant and odious interviewer - a draw, I would guess.

No Paxman isn't too old. Chloe Smith is out of her depth, she's a Treasury Minister, and she gave a poor account of herself - not just on Newsnight, but every other media appearance that night. The problem isn't with the interviewer it's with the politicians, who know what to expect, it's not as if they are total innocents. I remember seeing Ms Smith at a local meeting just after her Norwich North by-election success , and she was skilled at warm and vacuous management speak, but had nothing else to offer. She was easy pickings for Paxman because she's unutterably dim. Nice enough, but not ministerial material.

It has nothing to do with but with competence. Heat - kitchen comes to mind.

This illustrates the key issue with current society, our obsession with image over content. We need people of substance and wisdom running the government and that requires life experience something the current generation of child politicians cannot bring to the table. Ego's aside Paxman was only doing his job.

no one should be allowed to be an MP until they can show they have had 25 years in a 'proper job'.

redonkulous. regretting that I spent my time to read it.

This "article" is not only ageist it's downright idiotic!

To summarise for anyone who can't make it past the first paragraph: get young, dumb, unprepared interviewers to question young, dumb, unprepared MPs. Otherwise the "Everyone's a winner just for trying" Trophy Generation will cry. Because you made them cry. You old bully.

Yes, he used the word bully.

Baron Howard was 55 by my calculations, with many years of ministerial experience, at the time of his rather disasterous interview.
It seems that being young (if 30 is so young for a person to answer difficult questions) and new to political life are not the main determinants of disastrous interviews. An inability to recognise when sidestepping a Paxman question won't work is more important.

For those who find Paxman arrogant, odious and repulsive, etc: my friend, an 'ordinary member of the public', came across him in the middle of nowhere last week. He opened a conversation. He was amiable, friendly and interested - in no way full of his own importance. 'A good person' was the conclusion. My friend is a very good and highly intelligent person. What does this say to you of Paxman and some of his interviews/interviewees? To me, it says Paxman is good at his job, and..... [fill in our own conclusion.]

For those who find Paxman arrogant, odious and repulsive, etc: my friend, an 'ordinary member of the public', came across him in the middle of nowhere last week. He opened a conversation. He was amiable, friendly and interested - in no way full of his own importance. 'A good person' was the conclusion. My friend is a very good and highly intelligent person. What does this say to you of Paxman and some of his interviews/interviewees? To me, it says Paxman is good at his job, and..... [fill in your own conclusion.]

If Chloe Smith has nothing to hide why did Mr. Paxman have the opportunity to humiliate her. She should have done her homework before appearing on the show. Obviously these young aspiring politicians do not have the experience to be doing the work they are elected to do. If Chloe Smith could not hold her own in an interview with a reporter of any age she should resign now. Jeremy Paxman is an excellent reporter and generally gets to the heart of the matter, frequently asks the questions that the public would like to ask themselves but unfortunately do not get the opportunity. Experience and wisdom generally go hand in hand with age and I look forward to seeing very much more and for a long time of Jeremy Paxman.

This is a ridiculous article.

Paxman was asking reasonable questions and dealing with facts. Nothing wrong with that. We could have asked that nice and polite Mr Evan Davies to do the interview and the result would have been the same.

Paxman is an interviewer skilled at
driving home the questions politicians don't want to answer. He is exactly what
the public need to expose weaknesses in their politicians. Meanwhile Chloe
Smith is a government minister, skilled it seems in very little. The age of
either is not relevant. For the record reflect on this - Winston Churchill was
66 when he became Prime Minister in 1940, does that mean he was too old? Life
is about all kinds of people who all have different skills. Let's get on with
it and stop worrying about age (or race, religion, gender, sexuality and other

It isn't a fascinating question. And for the record, nointerviewers are not getting to old. What planet are you on. What other job is there where being older and needing to ask younger people questions somehow disqualifies you?