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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage