The interview as humiliation. Jeremy Paxman is the champion of an insidious form of journalism. John Lloyd on why his dispute with John Birt is symptomatic of a wider crisis in our political culture

The Harder Path: the autobiography

John Birt <em>Time Warner Books, 532pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0316860

The British news media thrive on the notion that politics is in decline, or in crisis. It vindicates the contempt that many of the media's leading protagonists express for politicians; even more importantly, it legitimises the real - unstated, even unconscious - purpose of the media: to monopolise all of people's attention, and in doing so replace parliamentary with media politics. There are two main sources of media power, one of which is obvious, contentious and much debated, even deplored. That is corporate media power, a power which has greatly increased as all sorts of entertainment and communications technologies have been bundled into very large corporations in order to gain synergy between them. News in all its forms - printed and broadcast - has become part of the entertainment mix offered by these corporations: the news divisions must show a profit, like any other. The pressure on them, while usually not overtly "editorial" (as in be nice to this politician or nasty about that policy - Rupert Murdoch is something of an exception here), is to garner audiences that are as large as possible. This is held to be leading to the "dumbing down" or marginalisation of much news and current affairs, in nearly every advanced country.

The other source of news power is one that almost dares not speak its name, because it is the power of the news and current affairs journalists themselves. It cannot admit its power to itself except in an idealised way, in which it sees itself as fearless, probing, curious, analytical, investigative and free. It sees itself as always fighting off larger powers, whether public or private. It has no ideology except the right - usually enshrined in a constitution - to hold power to account without suffering power's anger for doing so.

These two books show, in their different ways, the nature of this power. The better, if less illuminating in this respect, is The Harder Path. John Birt - who, as Lord Birt of Liverpool, is now the Prime Minister's strategic adviser - is seen by some of those who worked with him, or who followed what he did, as having "saved" the BBC as a public service, licence-funded institution, unique in the world. He secured a record income for the organisation, which he was able to set at a level that not only paid for its output and the expansion he put it through, but also provided the resources for it to become a major force in the digital age. By others who worked with him, Birt was and is regarded as having degraded the creative potential of television, blunted or attempted to blunt the sharp edge of current affairs, and introduced, via teams of management consultants, a nightmare jumble of quasi-markets in a system that had been dedicated to providing from central funds the resources producers needed. He is also seen as a toady to the establishment - any establishment - a trait that helped explain his desire to take the sting out of news and to neuter the main reporters and presenters. In a scathing review of Birt's book in the Guardian (26 October), Michael Grade, who had worked with him at London Weekend Television and at the BBC, wrote that "he gives the impression . . . of a man who enjoys power, seeks power and relishes mixing with power. The BBC was simply his vehicle."

The comment is ludicrously wrong. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth: that power, both acquiring it and dealing with it, was simply a vehicle for getting and changing the BBC. At the centre of Birt's professional life - it is unmatched in any other senior journalistic figure - was an obsession with heuristic journalism. He wanted journalism to be a means of popular education. As he explains it here, he wanted a journalism that told the kind of people among whom he was raised what was happening in the world, and why. In the celebrated articles he wrote in the Times with Peter Jay - the first presenter of the programme he devised, LWT's Weekend World - he argued that "there is a bias in TV journalism. It is not against any particular party or point of view - it is a bias against understanding. And this bias aggravates the difficulties which our society suffers in solving its problems and reconciling its difficulties."

Birt strove hard to correct that bias. In one sense, he succeeded. He hugely increased the resources available to BBC journalists. He raised their level of expertise, he helped bring in a more analytical approach to news, and he forced its leading journalists - especially those (the majority) who covered Britain - to think through the consequences of the changes in politics and in society. He never underestimates his achievements: he believes he made BBC News "the greatest centre of journalistic power and expertise in broadcasting anywhere in the world" - a judgement that, for all of its self-service, is probably right (only CNN could compete, and that is patchy). But at the same time, he failed to make the BBC culture understand what the bias against understanding was about, and failed to persuade them to share his view that politicians and other public figures were to be treated with respect. Weekend World always made it explicit that politicians, especially cabinet ministers, faced on most issues a range of difficult and constructed choices. It sought to make sense of the choices; its interviews were aimed at clarifying the view that the politician or public figure took of these choices. The presenters - Jay, then the former MPs Brian Walden (Labour) and Matthew Parris (Conservative) - stressed that politicians had larger responsibilities than they did because politicians were elected, and had taken on a greater or lesser range of duties as part of the democratic and governing process. Power was held to account, but explicitly underpinned because it was elective power. Television was a secondary function of democracy.

There were a number of practical problems with this. First, Weekend World, broadcast at 12 noon on Sunday, was not watched by many people: its didactic, anti-visual style ran counter to the trend of television towards lighter, more exciting programmes. Second, it depended on a kind of journalistic priesthood, who would put the programme and the rigour of its collective analysis before any individual achievement or personality. Third, it was, perhaps, not what TV is about.

At a recent party celebrating 30 years since the founding of Weekend World, Matthew Parris, in the most sombre of the speeches given by the three former presenters, said that the programme failed, in the end, because it cut against the grain of television. Television, at least in the way in which it was being taken as Birt strove to make it into an adult education course, could not bear too much analysis.

Parris's suggestion hung heavily in the air of the occasion: for it is true, Birt had been wasting his time. Protected at LWT - the company needed a heavyweight current affairs programme to keep its licence, and didn't care if nobody watched it - he was exposed at the BBC. The BBC was and is the heart of current affairs journalism. And as Birt came to it (initially, in 1987, as deputy director general to Michael Checkland and then, in 1992, as director general), it was developing in the opposite direction. Its senior management had a patrician contempt for television - an attitude powerfully reinforced by its former director general Alasdair Milne. Its emerging journalists and presenters were moved by, and shaped, the spirit of an anti-political age. The ethos became a settled conviction, which remains, that politics is a dirty game and politicians are a bunch of bastards.

Jeremy Paxman's The Political Animal is the highest full-length expression of this view yet published. "Once upon a time," he writes of the politicians he describes, "they must have been normal." Now they are a demented, empty, lickspittle bunch; indeed, many may be psychologically flawed given that, as he has discovered, a high proportion of them suffered the loss of a father at an early age - a condition which, according to an author named Lucille Iremonger who wrote a book about prime ministers in the late 1930s, produced a "compulsive and obsessive need for total love and adoration".

Paxman takes it so much for granted that television is more important than parliament that he wonders why MPs, or anyone else, can believe otherwise. In a remarkable passage, he denounces MPs for asking questions about, for example, the benefits to Britain of trading in the euro, or "to whom the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council was accountable", as self- evidently stupid. No one cares about this "pantomime", he writes. Politics has moved away from the Commons to the studios. He continues: this, MPs say, "is a Bad Thing, since it deprives them of the opportunity to hold the government to account in the cockpit of democracy. They have yet to explain why this process can be done only in a converted chapel under rules of conduct, some of which date back to the 16th century."

This is extraordinary because it is a quite unconscious affirmation that politics is no longer, and should no longer be, based on deliberation. Following as it does a relentless catalogue of the deformities of the political class, it is a kind of coup de grace for men and women foolish, egocentric, eccentric or "abnormal" enough to pursue this line of work so obviously past its useful function. Paxman - as an approach rather than an individual - has won. His style of journalism - the interview as humiliation, or personality clash - is now the preferred type. Even as Birt commanded the BBC and urged it forward, its engines were in reverse. Broadcast news and current affairs, for all its many splendours, is now an anti-democratic conspiracy. No one, it seems, can do anything about it.

This article first appeared in the 11 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Whatever happened to No Logo?