~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 21st 2012
Among the performances from witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry—and Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks have given compelling ones—the appearance of Jeremy Paxman on Wednesday afternoon could be the most dramatically perfect. The session threatens to take on a symbolic significance.
One of the visible signs of the shift in power between politicians and the media over the last 30 years has been the rise of the abrasive interviewer, and the most disdainful interrogator on British television is Paxman ("a kind of folk hero", in the words of the poet Tom Paulin). "Newsnight", the BBC2 programme he presents, starts at 10.30pm and this late slot gives Paxman the leeway to roll his eyes, snort with disbelief and once famously ask the same question 12 times. In recent years, disdain has sometimes shaded into torpor: he can look as if doesn't know how he has found himself, this late in the day, at the same gathering as his studio guests.
The tone of the inquiry is the opposite: on Wednesday afternoon, Paxman will face questions that are patient, courteous and bordering on the bland. He won't be able, a few minutes in, to swivel away on his chair, saying "We'll have to leave it there". Papers will be shuffled, water sipped, pauses taken. Minutes will slip by while the witness is given time to find the right tab in the right bundle. He will be allowed to finish his sentences and asked if he has anything to add. Instead of the underlying tone of the questions being "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?", he will be calmly asked, "Is it fair to summarise your position in this way?" or "I wonder, Mr Paxman, if you could help us out with this at all." A strange sight, seeing Paxman in daylight.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life