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Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Dixon Paxman (born 11 May 1950) is an English journalist, author and television presenter. He has worked for the BBC since 1977. Best known for his abrasive and forthright style of interviewing on the BBC's Newsnight programme, he has been praised as tough and incisive and criticised as aggressive, condescending and irreverent. As a consequence, tough questioning is sometimes referred to in the United Kingdom as Paxmanesque.

Early life

Paxman was born on 11 May 1950 in Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. His father, Keith Paxman, served in the North Atlantic Fleet. His mother, Joan, born 1920, was a housewife. Paxman is the eldest of four children and has two brothers, one of whom, Giles, is UK Ambassador to Mexico, and a sister, Jenny, a producer at BBC Radio.

He was brought up in Yorkshire and Peopleton, Worcestershire, where he attended Malvern College and, later, Charterhouse in Surrey. He then read English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he edited the undergraduate newspaper Varsity.

Paxman was the subject in January 2006 of an episode in the BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?. The programme reported him to be descended from one Roger Packsman, a 14th-century politician from Suffolk, who changed his name to Paxman (man of peace) to impress the electorate. The programme received much pre-publicity for showing Paxman's rarely-seen sensitive side: he became teary-eyed on camera when discovering that his impoverished great-grandmother Mary Mackay had had her poor relief application revoked by the parish because she'd had a child out of wedlock.

Career

Journalism

Paxman's career began in local radio at BBC Radio Brighton. He then moved to Belfast to report the mayhem of The Troubles. He was moved to London in 1977. Two years later he transferred from the Tonight programme to Panorama. After five years reporting from such places as Beirut, Uganda and Central America, he read the Six O'Clock News for two years before moving to BBC Breakfast Time.

Newsnight

Paxman became a presenter of Newsnight in 1989.

On 13 May 1997 he conducted what became the programme's most notorious interview. Pressing Michael Howard, who had been Home Secretary until thirteen days earlier, about a meeting with Derek Lewis, head of the Prison Service, about the possible dismissal of the governor of Parkhurst Prison, Howard having given evasive answers, Paxman put the same question "Did you threaten to overrule him?" (referring to Lewis) a total of twelve times in succession. Later, during a 20th anniversary edition of Newsnight, Paxman told Howard that he had simply been trying to prolong the interview since the next item in the running order wasn't ready. In 2004 Paxman raised the subject again with Howard, by then leader of the Conservative Party. This time, Howard laughed it off, saying that he had not threatened to overrule the head of the Prison Service.

In 1998, Denis Halliday, a director of United Nations humanitarian aid, resigned his post in Iraq, describing the effects of his own organisation's sanctions as genocide. Paxman asked Halliday in a Newsnight interview, "Aren't you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?"

Later that year Paxman won a Royal Television Society award.

In 2003 the British Prime Minister Tony Blair opted to make the case for the invasion of Iraq via questions from a TV studio audience, mediated by Paxman. The programme is chiefly remembered for the fact that Paxman asked Blair if he and President Bush prayed together. Blair replied, "No, Jeremy. We don't pray together."

During the 2005 UK General Election some viewers complained to the BBC that Paxman's robust questioning of party leaders had been rude and aggressive. There was also criticism of his five-in-the-morning results interview with George Galloway. Referring to Oona King, whom Galloway had just defeated, Paxman asked more than once whether he was proud of having got rid of "one of the very few black women in Parliament." An exasperated Galloway cut the interview short, and among subsequent critics was the defeated MP herself. Paxman later made a taped guest appearance on the Celebrity Big Brother reality TV show challenging Galloway to a follow-up session "with or without your leotard". (Galloway, a Big Brother contestant at the time, had in an earlier much-publicized stunt during the show dressed up in a leotard.)

Paxman's brusque manner is not restricted to political interviews. When Newsnight's editor decided to broadcast brief weather forecasts instead of financial reports he openly ridiculed the decision: "And for tonight's weather — it's April, what do you expect?". The financial reports were re-introduced after a few weeks. In a Radio Times poll of 3,000 people in 2006, he was voted the fourth "scariest" TV celebrity.

Other TV work

Paxman has presented the weekly TV programme review Did You See?, You Decide and, most notably, since 1994, University Challenge, bringing him the distinction of "longest-serving current quizmaster on British TV."

Paxman presents on BBC America and BBC World a weekly compilation, launched in February 2008, of highlights from the domestic edition of Newsnight.

In April 2006 The Sun claimed that Paxman earned £800,000 for his Newsnight job and £240,000 for presenting University Challenge, bringing his TV earnings to a yearly total of £1,040,000. This was one of a series of BBC salary leaks in the tabloid press that prompted an internal BBC investigation.

Paxman & the BBC

While John Birt was Director General of the BBC, the UK press from time to time reported Paxman's criticism of his boss. The former, suspected at first to be an outsider brought in by a hostile government to supervise the BBC's break-up and ultimate sell-off, in turn publicly questioned the confrontational approach, as he saw it, of certain TV and radio interviewers. This was seen at the time as coded criticism of Paxman himself and of his BBC colleague John Humphrys.

On 24 August 2007 Paxman delivered the McTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In it he was critical of much of contemporary TV in Britain. He expressed concern that as a consequence of recent production scandals the medium was rapidly losing public trust. Speaking of prime minister Tony Blair's criticism of the mass media at the time he left office, Paxman asserted that however often press and broadcasting may be "oppositional" in relation to the government of the day this could only benefit democracy. Those Reithian goals, to "inform, educate and entertain," still remained valid. Paxman took the opportunity to dismiss as "inaccurate" the attribution to himself of the oft-quoted "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" as the supposed dominant thought in his mind when interviewing senior politicians. He called on the television industry to rediscover a sense of purpose.

Books

Paxman takes time off TV work most years to focus on less ephemeral writing. His first book, A Higher Form of Killing (1982), written with then BBC colleague and friend Robert Harris, arose out of an edition of the Panorama programme they'd made together on biological and chemical warfare. In a revised 2002 version they asserted that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. In 1985 Paxman published Through the Volcanoes: A Central American Journey, an eyewitness account of people, places and politics. Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain? (1991) was the result of numerous detailed interviews with the powerful or highly influential, what used to be called The Establishment. Paxman's The English: A Portrait of a People (1999) was not the first of his books to be greeted with wide critical acclaim. The Political Animal: An Anatomy (2003), again based on extensive interviews, examines the motivations and methods of those who constitute the author's professional prey: Westminster politicians. The otherwise-republican Paxman's On Royalty, which entailed the cooperation of Britain's royal family, became by the time it was published in 2006, to his own surprise and somewhat to the surprise of others, a defence of the country's constitutional monarchy. His recent books have each been big sellers.

Awards etc

In 1996 Paxman got BAFTA's Richard Dimbleby Award for "outstanding presenter in the factual arena." Two years later he won the Royal Television Society's Interviewer of the Year Award for his somewhat notorious Newsnight interview (see above) with Michael Howard, as well as the Broadcasting Press Guild's award for best "non-acting" performer. He got another Richard Dimbleby Award in 2000 and was nominated for the award in 2001 and 2002. He won the Royal Television Society TV journalism presenter of the year award in 2002 and 2007.

Paxman was made an honorary graduate of the University of Bradford in December 1999. In 2006 he received an honorary doctorate from the Open University. Among those at the ceremony were three members of the Open University's 1999 University Challenge team. Paxman is a Fellow by special election of St. Edmund Hall, and an Honorary Fellow of his alma mater, St. Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Personal life

Paxman lives with his partner Elizabeth Ann Clough in Stonor, Oxfordshire. They have three children: Jessica, and twins Victoria and Jack. He supports Leeds United, and enjoys fly fishing in his leisure time. He is vice-chairman of the Wild Trout Trust conservation charity.

When some years ago Paxman applied for the vacant editorship of the venerable Labour-supporting weekly The New Statesman, he said he considered himself a socialist.

Criticism

Paxman has been publicly criticized over his and his partner's home help arrangements. Having advertised on a Romanian website, they then hired two people at below the minimum wage without a contract. Though not illegal in the UK if employees live in, such treatment from a highly paid celebrity raised Press eyebrows. One headline demanded to know: "Just how many Romanians are living over Paxman's garage?"

Despite his own Scottish ancestry (see above), Paxman's controversial remarks about the Scots have provoked anger at parliamentary level. Twenty Scottish Members of Parliaments signed a House of Commons motion in March 2005 condemning him for comparing supposed Scottish dominance at Westminster to British rule in India: a "Scottish Raj" was running the UK, said Paxman. The row came right after a Cabinet minister had complained that the Newsnight host had been offensive about his Glasgow accent. Paxman's response served further to fan the flames. In an introduction to a new edition of Chambers Dictionary in August 2008 Paxman labeled the work of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns as "sentimental doggerel."

Paxman has come under fire from critics of US foreign policy, including award-winning fellow journalist John Pilger, for his involvement with the British-American Project which, according to The Guardian, "even its supporters joke that it's funded by the CIA." Fellow-members include Paul Wolfowitz and Diana Negroponte, wife of John Negroponte. Paxman is pictured prominently on the organization's homepage saying: "A marvellous way of meeting a varied cross-section of transatlantic friends."

Days after Pilger's New Statesman piece, headlined "Tainted Hands Across the Water", a blogger tackled the Newsnight presenter via email. Paxman replied: "This may not satisfy your stupid prejudices, but I have never met Mr Wolfowitz or Ms Negroponte. Grow up." This retort prompted the blogger in question, Gabriele Zamparini, to make a formal complaint to the BBC; Paxman's position was in flagrant contravention of BBC impartiality guidelines: "This is outrageous and surely deserves to be taken very seriously by the BBC."

Formally rejecting the allegations, Helen Boaden, Director of BBC News, replied: "I do not believe that Jeremy Paxman is a very active member of the organisation (indeed it came as a surprise to him that his picture was being used on their website) but, even if he were, it can only be helpful for presenters to be informed about all sorts of different perspectives."

Paxman in popular culture

  • A puppet of Paxman made regular appearances on the satirical TV show Spitting Image (1984–1996). He was portrayed as extremely smug and deeply in love with himself.
  • Paxman became a focus of media attention in his own right in October 2000 when the stolen Enigma machine which had been taken from Bletchley Park Museum was inexplicably sent to him in the post. He had it returned to its rightful location.
  • Paxman had a cameo role as himself in the 2004 film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. He has made similar appearances in British TV shows such as The Vicar of Dibley (2000), Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (2001; uncredited) and My Dad's the Prime Minister (2004).
  • The grinning green cartoon planet devised by American marketing executives for the cover of US editions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) was nicknamed "Jeremy Pacman" by fans. The book's author Douglas Adams hated this character, although it seems unlikely he was aware of its nickname.
  • As part of the promotional tour for his book On Royalty (2006), Paxman appeared on the US-based Comedy Central faux news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on 14 May 2007. His appearance was made more relevant since it took place on the heels of Queen Elizabeth II's state visit to the United States the week before.
  • Paxman is often nicknamed "Paxo", which is both a contraction of his surname and a popular brand of British stuffing mix. The ordeal of a Paxman interview is sometimes described as being "Paxoed" This derives from a similarity between the "Paxo" nickname and the popular advertising slogan for the Tango drinks brand in the UK - "You know when you've been Tangoed!" - ie. "You know when you've been Paxoed!".
  • Charlie Brooker once opined in his Screen Burn columns that one of his new policies for the BBC were he put in charge would be to "let Paxman actually hit people", describing this as "self-explanatory".

Bibliography

  • Harris, Robert; Jeremy Paxman (1982). A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare. New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang. New edition published as .
  • Paxman, Jeremy (1985). Through the Volcanoes: A Central American Journey. London: Paladin.
  • Paxman, Jeremy (1991). Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain?. London; New York, N.Y.: Penguin.
  • Paxman, Jeremy (1999). The English: A Portrait of a People. London: Penguin.
  • Paxman, Jeremy (2003). The Political Animal: An Anatomy. London: Penguin.
  • Paxman, Jeremy (2006). On Royalty. London; New York, N.Y.: Viking.

Notes

References

Further reading

External links

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