Jeremy Paxman: lovable grump or cantankerous luddite?

The <em>Newsnight</em> host can’t hold his tongue – and we love him for it.

One of the best – and worst – things about Jeremy Paxman is his inability to bite his tongue.

Jeremy Paxman finds it hard to keep shtum when he's got an opinion. For many, it's the quality that elevates him beyond the level of A N Other journalist to being a national treasure. For others, though, it's what gives him a rather snotty and supercilious air that chips away at his credentials.

Sometimes I don't know which way I go on Paxman. When he got stroppy about a pair of pants and wrote to M&S to voice his displeasure, I found it rather endearing. You can imagine the righteous anger of an aggrieved Y-fronts wearer seething out of his pores as he wrote the email, his tolerance stretched, like an inadequate gusset, to breaking point. On the other hand, when he grumbled about having to do a weather report on Newsnight it seemed to be verging on the juvenile (though I found it amusing). And then there was his withering rant about how white, middle-class men (The Real Victims, as you may recall from this column last week) were discriminated against in television.

So, into what category does his latest grumpy outpouring – this time writing in Newsnight's daily email about what a bad idea having a daily email is – fall? Is it lovable old Paxo, railing against his daft bosses, striking a blow as the only one who can see past the madness? Or is it Victor Meldrew Paxman, whingeing and whining about anything slightly innovative?

I think it's probably a bit of both. The rebel in me enjoys the way in which Paxman refuses to keep quiet about what he has always thought is a bad idea, despite being forced to push it by his superiors, and the blunt tone is rather refreshing. "The reason for killing it off is pretty straightforward," Jeremy P wrote yesterday, sparks presumably flying off his keyboard: "it's crap." As well as that, you have to concede that an email which arrives after the programme it's promoting has gone to air isn't spectacularly successful.

On the other hand, I think Paxman's a bit too quick to dismiss multi-platform promotion of his TV show. Things like emails, podcasts (as Paxman somewhat Luddishly calls them, "television without pictures") and blogs (presumably "television without moving pictures, or sound") can be a pretty handy way of engaging your audience, as opposed to the one-way "like it or lump it" approach of conventional broadcasting. And in an era when people don't just watch your programme when it's transmitted, but can catch up on iPlayer for a week afterwards, emails arriving a bit late might not be the end of the world.

Still, that rather truculent sign-off is the reason we should cherish Paxman, even if every now and then he occasionally makes us wince. How many of us in our daily jobs have had to put up with some kind of tinkering from the higher echelons which makes no sense at the coalface? How many times have we bitten our tongues and stayed silent, knowing that what we're doing is madness?

Most of us just stay silent and keep our head down. Paxo gives us the chance vicariously to stick two fingers up at the boss – and hurrah for that. We may have to keep our head down, but he's not afraid to say what he thinks – even if he gets it wrong sometimes.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org