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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”