So who came off worse in The Battle for Number 10, last night’s Channel 4 / Sky stand-off between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn? It was Jeremy Paxman. May and Corbyn were paragons of patience and sense in contrast with this oafish, boorish barker of rude and even pointless questions. Watching Paxo was squirm-inducing. He’s the angry drunk uncle who ruins every barbecue by yelling ‘BALLS’ at anyone who disagrees with him. I’m convinced Corbyn or May would have instantly won tens of thousands of new voters if they had told him to bugger off.
It’s amazing how knackered Paxman’s schtick felt. Did we really lap this guff up in the 2000s, when he was anchor of Newsnight? With one eye trained on Twitter — ‘Please let this grilling go viral’, you could hear his hack’s brain thinking — he tried all his usual tricks. He did the repeat-the-question trick, perhaps hoping for a replay of his 1997 moment of viral glory when he became the man-crush of Guardianistas everywhere by asking Michael Howard the same question 12 times. But May wasn’t having it. ‘I know this is your style,’ she shot back. He did his Tourette’s-style interrupting — why can’t media people tell the difference between interrogation and impoliteness? — much to Corbyn’s annoyance. ‘Will you let me finish?’, Corbyn asked, and for the first time in my life, and hopefully the last, I made an actual, audible cheering sound for Jeremy Corbyn.
At times Paxo was ridiculous — like, crazy-old-man-on-the-bus ridiculous. He kept waving the Labour manifesto at Corbyn and demanding to know why it doesn’t contain everything Corbyn has ever thought and said. Why is there nothing about getting rid of all nukes? About pensioning off the monarchy? Eh?? Slowly, temperately, Corbyn explained that a party manifesto is the outcome of party democracy and therefore it contains things the whole party wants, not just its leader’s dreams. ‘I’m not a dictator,’ he said. A waggish meme-maker captured the daftness of Paxman’s grilling with an image of him waving the Labour manifesto and saying: ‘YOUR CORE BELIEF THAT BEANS GO ON A JACKET POTATO BEFORE CHEESE DIDN’T MAKE IT INTO THE MANIFESTO.’
The tongue-lashing he gave May was equally weird. How can she pursue Brexit when she doesn’t even believe in it, he yelled? I was on the cusp of phoning Channel 4 HQ and reading the dictionary definition of democracy to the receptionist and insisting he or she communicate it to Paxo before he went home for the night, but thankfully May got in their first, reminding him she’s doing Brexit because the people voted for it. The highlight of the night was when the audience applauded May’s shooting down of Paxman and his media-bubble incredulity at her suggestion that no deal with the EU would be better than a bad deal. A more sensitive media interrogator would have recognised this applause as a revolt against his gruff, binary line of questioning, but not Paxo. He kept barking.
The whole thing was kind of tragic, almost self-parodic: an ageing Paxo playing the younger Paxo, perhaps under pressure from media bosses telling him, ‘Do that thing you used to do’. I was never a fan of Paxman’s style, but at least in the Newsnight years you could see there was genuine curiosity behind his bruising queries. Last night he just seemed sore and irritated. Like some of the pretenders to his throne — I’m thinking Cathy Newman, who’s becoming really shouty, or Krishnan Guru-Murthy, now a leading purveyor of the Twitterati-pleasing ‘gotcha!’ style of interviewing — Paxman seems to believe that bellowing at politicians is a good, democratic way of holding them to account. But it can have the opposite effect. It can diminish the serious, intelligent discussion of things and ideas that makes democracy possible in favour of giving the public showboating show-downs between narcissistic interviewers and defensive politicians, as if we were plebs at the Colosseum waiting for lion to maul a Christian. It makes politics into a spectacle and us into spectators. It’s deflating and dispiriting.
Paxman’s performance felt like a tragic cry from a bygone era. From the pre-Brexit era, to be precise. You see, that’s what has changed since his Newsnight days. Brexit happened, and it ripped up all the old scripts. Those days when politics was the purview of a technocratic elite coming up with drab policies and a barking media class saying ‘How you gonna pay for this? Why are you lying?’ feel so over. Brexit destroyed them. Brexit was a revolt not only against Brussels but also against the cosiness and clubby-ness of a political and media set who thought politics was for people like them: people with 20,000-plus Twitter followers and degrees in PPE and lasting memories of that time Paxo humiliated Howard. Brexit was a demand for more public ownership of politics, for more depth and democracy in politics, and some in the media are failing to meet these demands. They’re still giving us anti-political snark and sneering – and it just feels so, so tired.