Paxman quits: why did he go with juicy election coming up?

May 1, 2014
Jack Bremer

Fed up with politicians and fed up with BBC execs is the consensus. Now, will Eddie Mair get his job?

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

JEREMY PAXMAN'S decision to quit Newsnight has raised eyebrows in media circles: why would one of British television's greatest interviewers of politicians leave his job before the upcoming general election and not after?

He's been the programme's main presenter for 25 years – and that's a neat milestone. But surely, in the build-up to an election that's likely to be a very close race, one last chance to make the political classes squirm would be irresistible? 

He is after all - in the words of The Independent - a man who can "demolish the credibility of an obfuscating politician with a mere facial expression of disbelief".

The consensus is that he's become so jaded with quizzing politicians that enough is enough. He admitted himself yesterday that he had wanted to go last year and only stayed on to help the programme through the awkward Jimmy Savile saga.

But it is also clear he's increasingly fed up with the Beeb - he recently described his employers as "smug" - while industry gossip says he does not see eye to eye with Newsnight's new editor, Ian Katz, who wants to puts his own stamp on the 2015 general election coverage when it gets underway this autumn.

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail says that he when saw Paxman in the flesh the other day "he looked grizzled, crumpled, spent. Still handsome yes. But weary. Professionally jaded, and not just by the years."

Letts added: "It is hard to blame him for wanting to pack it in. There is only so much a man can take of shysters and fraudsters, and ­Jeremy has had to interview more than his fair share of them."

Roy Greenslade, media watcher at The Guardian, says Paxman's heart hasn't been in it for a while: "He has often appeared bored with the task of interviewing people, treating them either with disdain or a kind of synthetic hostility." 

He adds: "Over time, his scepticism towards the ministers and MPs forced to undergo a grilling from him turned into cynicism.

"Eventually, that showed through in his on-air manner. Occasional amusing impertinence turned into outright scorn. He had no time for them, and he didn't try to hide it."

Greenslade doesn't say specifically that there's been a problem with Katz, but he does point out: "It is a pity that his [Paxman's] changed attitude should have coincided with the arrival as editor of Ian Katz, the former Guardian deputy editor.

"The qualities I noted in the young Paxman were exactly those I also spotted in the young Katz. They were, and probably remain, very alike. And I believe that if they had met and worked together earlier they would have made a formidable team."

What is remarkable about the warm goodbyes Paxman is getting from the press is that they come from far and wide, and include the Daily Mail, which rarely misses an opportunity to have a dig at the BBC. 

The paper's made an exception this time because Paxman, despite being one of the corporation's highest paid presenters (about £1m a year, it's thought), has made his own frustrations with the BBC very apparent.

They came to a head recently when in an interview he called the corporation "smug" and said: “There’s a pile of stuff on the BBC I can’t stand”.

His "idea of hell", he said, was to find himself in a BBC lift in New Broadcasting House ("that ghastly building") with Radio 1 Xtra playing. "I don't quite understand why the BBC does Radio 1 Xtra. I don't really understand why it does Radio 1. Clearly, you can meet those needs commercially."

It brought a furious response from Radio 1's controller, Ben Cooper, who suggested Paxo should keep his views under control and insisted that commercial radio was unable to match the BBC's quality of output. 

So, we may never see again a TV interview like the infamous 1997 one with Michael Howard, the then Tory Home Secretary, when Paxman fired the same question at him more than a dozen times (Paxman has since suggested he did it to fill time, because the next item wasn't ready to roll). 

But he will continue to present University Challenge and his name is bound to come up when David Dimbleby finally jumps or is pushed from Question Time.

As for his replacement in the Newsnight chair, the bookmakers seem keen that it should be a woman and have Laura Kuenssberg, Mishal Husain and Emily Maitlis in the frame. 

The bookies also have some men's names to offer – including some nonsensical suggestions, topped by Piers Morgan – but the smart money is on Eddie Mair, the Radio 4 PM presenter who proved a hit on TV when he stood in for Andrew Marr and gave Boris Johnson a good seeing-to.

More significantly perhaps, it was Mair who stepped in to present Newsnight on the day in November 2012 when the programme had to deliver a public apology to Lord McAlpine. Mair ended the programme by saying: “Newsnight will be back on Monday, probably.”

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