Paxman and Mason clash over Greece protests

"Oh come on Paul, it was hardly the entire population of Athens on the streets".

The tragedy that is Greece. A conflict that has exploded across our TV screens, pitting brother against brother. And that's just in the Newsnight studio.

Jeremy Paxman is famed for exposing the evasions and obfuscation of his guests. But last night, seemingly frustrated by the absence of someone to interrogate, he chose to turn on his own colleague, Paul Mason.

The bizarre exchange began as Mason began to sign off a package he had produced on the day's unrest in Athens. "There's sporadic rioting going on", said Mason, "and not a single politician can leave their secure accommodation". Describing the situation as "a little bit chaotic", Newsnight's economics editor explained that the austerity package had nevertheless been passed in the face of what he termed "viscerally felt anger".

At which point the BBC's grand inquisitor pounced. "Oh come on Paul, it was hardly the entire population of Athens on the streets was it, and certainly not the entire population of Greece". Mason, who had spent the day dodging tear gas and riot police, appeared momentarily stunned, his face set in an expression that made it look like he'd swallowed an Athenian wasp.

"But if people are, as you say, losing faith in such numbers", followed up Paxman pointedly, "where does that lead?"

For a moment the nation's Newsnight viewers held our collective breaths in the hope it might lead to Mason storming off live on air. But showing a level of restraint markedly absent from the streets of the Greek capital, he confined himself to a gritted, "There are a lot of people out Jeremy".

A clip of a Greek commentator helpfully comparing the situation in his country to 1930's Germany momentarily cut across the BBC's own domestic strife, but when we returned Mason was shaking his head and had a strange grin on his face. The rest of the two-way passed offpeacefully until in the final exchange, when Newsnight's economics editor threw down his own challenge over who was responsible for the collapse of the Eurozone; "the people who run the Eurozone, you tell me Jeremy who that is, who we ask the question of". Jeremy didn't.

Badinage between colleagues is all part of the Newsnight brand. But few journalists I've spoken to can ever recall an anchor directly challenging a colleague over his description of events on the ground. One broadcast correspondent working for a different outlet seemed perplexed at Paxman's challenge to Mason; "We've got guys out in Athens and from what we had coming back yesterday it certainly looked like it was getting a bit tasty".

BBC colleagues denied there was any "history" between the two men. "Paul likes to wear his heart on his sleeve a bit, and Jeremy's a bit more refined, but I'm not aware of any problems", said one. Asked if he'd like to comment on the minor on air contretemps, Mason provided a succinct response; "No". A BBC spokesman said; "This is the sort of thing you come to expect on Newsnight. He [Paxman] wasn't contradicting him [Mason], he was challenging him".

Well that's all right then. Paxman/Mason. Coming to a theatre near you.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.