Viewer’s Guide to Jeremy Paxman pursuing an answer from Michael Howard

Mar.
1
Watch this famous clip. It’s two minutes:

The clip is from May, 1997. Interviewing the conservative politician (later party leader) Michael Howard is the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman. The clip as edited invites you to enjoy the spectacle of Paxman, the presenter of Newsnight, asking Michael Howard the same question (“did you threaten to overrule him?”) twelve times before letting go without an answer.

I found the Paxman link in this excellent Dave Weigel column about Piers Morgan: Thank goodness Piers Morgan Live is dead. Some sources say Paxman later admitted that he was asked to stretch the interview out and had nothing else to ask about. I share it with PressThink readers only to append this comment:

Twelve times! Including some meta time on how rude it looked to keep asking. You almost never see that on American television. If David Gregory of NBC’s Meet the press follows up with the opposition leader once, he’s being bold. Twice: that’s considered aggressive. Three, four times on the same question: Gregory is making a point by being that insistent. At five repetitions of the question David Gregory would be out of ideas for pressing further, at six he would be out of air. “We’ll have to leave it there.”

For if he is paid for anything he is paid to know that the give-up-and-move-on point on Sunday morning political television is closer to three or four that it is to Paxman’s twelve consecutive tries at getting an answer from a politician. The guests in the green room know this too. Famously, they are from both sides. But the side they are all on, the guests as much as the host or presenter, as well as the producers in the control room, is the undisrupted flow of the broadcast itself. It has to keep moving. It can’t stop for the spectacle of eight, nine, ten repetitions of the same question without success. And that simple fact affects everything that appears on air.

The people who keep the show moving are on the same team, no matter for whom they say they play.

13 Comments

  1. mathew says:

    Sure, but your point is? It was both entertaining political theatre and an important point: Howard overstepped the mark and was called on it. Rightly.

  2. I remember seeing the fallout from that interview unfold…it essentially terminated Michael Howard’s top-flight political career. To be fair, Howard was caught between a rock and a hard place on the subject, since the Conservative Party was split on Britain’s relationship with Europe, and Howard was desperately trying to avoid answering any questions about it for fear of stirring up antagonisms. But to spend virtually an entire interview ducking and weaving was too much to be tolerable.

    The real underlying issue which bears discussion is: why is there no equivalent of Jeremy Paxman in the USA media today? That is an altogether more interesting topic.

  3. Jozef Imrich says:

    Allegedly, Paxman told Howard that he had simply been trying to prolong the interview since the next item in the running order wasn’t ready… The man of peace is paid over $1m ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10582550/BBC-stars-face-25-pay-cuts-in-tax-avoidance-clampdown.html )

    Paxman’s explanation was that “by the time I’d asked the question five or six times… it was clear… that you [Howard] weren’t going to answer it… at which point a voice came in my ear and said “The next piece of tape isn’t cut, you’d better carry on with this for a while” and I’m afraid I couldn’t think of anything else to ask you.”

  4. nathanH says:

    Paxman’s interview technique was obviously blunt and ineffective. Edward R. Murrow was more subtle and successful with typical politicians.

    Murrow had learned from long experience that politicians will usually evade difficult direct questions with well practiced non-answers; repeating the question merely triggers the same type of canned non-answer.

    Murrow’s technique at the point of the politician’s initial non-answer… was to assume a slightly uncomprehending, puzzled expression — and pause silently for a moment until the politician reacted to this unexpected turn in a routine interview.

    Like a poker player, Murrow watched his opponent’s mind work — ‘You stupid oaf interviewer, if you didn’t comprehend that, I’ll put it in kindergarten language you can understand’… and proceeds to do so. Then, in the course of an unpracticed 2nd answer — the politician drops his guard to what he now thinks is a rather dumb, unskilled questioner. Then Murrow deftly elicits a real answer to his question from the impromptu second response.

    • Paxman’s interview technique was not ineffective. Howard was excoriated all over the country and held up to ridicule for persistently refusing to answer what was on the face of it a perfectly reasonable question. His career as the leader of the Conservative Party ended shortly afterwards.

  5. Christine Jesperson says:

    Hi Jay,

    I recently had the pleasure of watching that video you did on why you love Rachel Maddow.

    Remember?… it’s the one where you drink whiskey and make soul-crushingly banal observations with the clueless self-importance of a privileged grind who has been rewarded all his life for deference and assumed the whole time it was for brains.

    Fuck me if I didn’t want to jump out the Overton Window while you were describing it. It was like watching a younger Wallace Shawn after a bad stroke and minus any idiosyncratic charm.

    Keep up the excellent work!

    • Jay Rosen says:

      The Wallace Shawn thing has been noticed before. I never saw the similarities until people started mentioning them about five years ago. Funny, huh?

      I noticed the hate watching of that video was up, but this is the first time anyone has come to my site to actually deliver the hate in person.

  6. Allison Wright says:

    Anyone who listens to Dick Gregory is, of course, a fucking moron, but speaking of Rachel Maddow above, is a Comcast/GE “liberal” such as Rachel Maddow really any better?

    In the way Maddow (and the fake bourgeois left crowd at MSNBC)….. have been describing recent events in the Ukraine, it shows us, once again, that the American people THINK that they are watching yet another episode of “Homeland” or “CSI” or “Survivor: Ukraine”.

    And that even after witnessing 12 plus years of blatant continuous murder and mayhem costing the lives of MILLIONS of innocent people caused by the war criminals who lead this country the vast majority of the American public (who get their understanding of the outside world from Disneyland) all basically will follow once again the script that Maddow and TPTB have given them.

    Yet if even ONE police officer had been even slightly harmed during a protest in an American city – much less killed – you can bet that according to the MSNBC crowd this would have been a state-sanctioned f*cking bloodbath – one which even many members of today’s American fake left would condone.

    What an effing madhouse.

    If a government of, for and run by murderous war criminals – i.e. the US government – and one of its officially sanctioned spokespersons (such as Rachel Maddow) tells you once again that there’s a new “uprising/democracy movement” that we have to support somewhere in the world and you as an American citizen DON’T reflexively and viscerally understand that everything you’re hearing – after all of the death and destruction of 12+ years – is murderous propaganda bullshit then there’s really not much reason for you to get up in the morning as you are actually making the world a worse place due to your incredible ignorance of reality.

  7. don says:

    Responding to Christine and Allison’s off topic comments above….

    Well, let’s see, what has the war criminal US got to stir up Rachel Maddow, the laptop bombadiers who have taken over NPR and all the rest of the “fake” left in America/West so they can feel great about Putin bashing?

    Anti-Olympic/anti-anti-gay rants meant to embarrass Putin since December. BOO HISSS!!! Check.

    Freed psyop agents Pussy Riot fresh from an Amnesty concert in Feb in NY now involved in more altercations. How shocking! Check.

    Fake RT journos who are seemingly sympathetic to some of the left’s viewpoints – e.g, 9/11 truth – publicly pulling up stakes and standing by the US government. You go girls!!! Check.

    What’s next? As someone noted, where’s FEMEN? Show us your tits, psyop girls!! You missed Mardi Gras, ffs!!

    Wait…are you thinking what I’m thinking?

    Yup, it’s time for something Snowden!!!! AWWWHHHYEAAAAH!!!!!

    His death? Disappearance? What would be a great narrative to further demonize Putin? How can the US intel salvage THAT anti-Putin failed psyop operation?

    See, unlike some, I think that the Russia portion of the Snowden saga was ALSO meant to be part of this whole “coincidentally” timed psyop parade but his mission there – smelled out by Putin et al – was nipped in the bud. Who knows maybe time will prove me incorrect but I think the US not allowing him to leave Russia and come to the Western (read: crawling with CIA etc) hemisphere was the tell.

    In either case, I just can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s news/propaganda cycle brings to make the fake left even more outraged.

  8. Phyllis Boingueaux says:

    Speaking of Snowden, here’s a couple excerpts from Arthur Silber’s most recent post:

    “The general reaction to the Snowden leaks and the journalists covering the story — which is to laud them as “heroes” and to lavish them with every award under the sun — seems to proceed from what is a third-grader’s understanding of the issues involved. We’ve been told something that we hadn’t known (despite the fact that the general outline of what we’ve been told had been clear to many of us for some time), and what we’ve been told is very bad. Therefore: woohoo! This is appalling and incredibly dumb.

    [........]

    Two points from that earlier discussion are worth repeating here. Snowden has always been at pains to assure everyone — and most particularly, to assure the State — that he doesn’t want to threaten the State in any serious way. And even though his major concern is with mass surveillance, that, too, would be acceptable to him in general terms, provided it is sanctioned by “informed public consent,” and even though he himself would choose differently.

    But look again at [his] concluding remarks to the EU. “[T]here are many other undisclosed programs that would impact EU citizens’ rights…” Many other undisclosed programs that affect tens of millions of people. Maybe they’ll find out about them, maybe they won’t. And Snowden himself won’t make that decision. “Responsible journalists in coordination with government stakeholders” will decide. We’ve witnessed this game for nine months; we know how it’s played. The “responsible journalists” and “government stakeholders” will allow us to see perhaps 2% of all the documents Snowden gathered up. With redactions, and without explanations of the redactions or explanations, even in general terms, of what we will never be told.

    But honestly, it’s more than slightly ridiculous to parse these statements further. Snowden’s formulation, and the adoption of his methodology by the “responsible journalists” involved, mean only one thing: these are, ultimately, State-sanctioned leaks.

    This is State-sanctioned whistleblowing. Whatever dangers much wider, and much more rapid, disclosure might have carried have been entirely obliterated. What remains constitutes no threat of any remotely serious kind to the States implicated. Yes, there will be hearings, some “reforms,” and life for the States will go almost exactly as before. Your life, on the other hand … well, who gives a damn about your life.

    This is not whistleblowing as it has been understood, when information that a State decidedly does not want disclosed is made public, and which then causes serious disruption to the State at a minimum. A tattletale is “a child who tells a parent, teacher, etc., about something bad or wrong that another child has done : a child who tattles on another child.” Other definitions are in accord.

    Be sure to appreciate the meaning of the highlighted phrase: a tattletale is someone who reports “something bad or wrong” to an authority. And that is precisely what Snowden has done. He has entrusted the documents to “responsible journalists,” who have adopted the rationales and methods of the States themselves. Moreover, these “responsible journalists” work together with “government stakeholders” to determine which documents may be “safely disclosed” on the basis of factors that are explained in only the vaguest and most vacuous of terms. We haven’t escaped the oppression and abuses of authority: we have only added to the authorities who decide what we will be allowed to know. Before, we were concerned with oppression by the State. Now we can look forward to oppression by the State and by those “responsible journalists” who have lucked into the story of a lifetime, which they then stripped of almost all meaning and impact.

    So let us try to use words with precision. Henceforth: Edward Snowden, tattletale. As for these heroic, trail-blazing, State-coddling “responsible journalists” … hmm. Patsies. Jerks. Contemptible fools and, hardly incidentally, themselves seekers of wealth and power.

    I have one request, in the nature of truth in advertising. I want to see all future stories relying on the Snowden documents accompanied by a stamp in which appear the following words. We are provided similar guarantees in connection with food and drugs, for example, and I see no reason not to adapt the practice to “journalism,” given what that term now appears to mean. Each such story should carry this ironclad assurance:

    This story contains those facts, and only those facts, that we and the State have determined it is safe for you to know. We will never tell you anything else, and we will most certainly never tell you anything more.

    http://powerofnarrative.blogspot.com/

  9. Chick Counterfly says:

    “The work of the Right is done very well, and spontaneously, by the Left on its own…”

    Jean Baudrillard

  10. Bob says:

    To get back to your actual topic, I wonder whether the reason so many people say “all politicians are alike, what’s the point of voting” is that they have learned this from watching TV news shows, where, as you say, everyone’s on the same team.