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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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