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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 02:45 GMT 03:45 UK
Interrogators get a grilling
The body language said it all
Nyta Mann

It was a bill Don King would have killed to promote. Alastair Campbell, the government's chief propagandist, versus Jeremy Paxman, BBC Newsnight's interrogator extraordinaire.

Quite rightly given the rarity value of this clash of the heavyweights, they were not wasting their time with your everyday, common or garden interview. They were doing so in reversed roles, with Mr Campbell demanding the answers of Mr Paxman.

In a second bout, former shadow cabinet member Ann Widdecombe was taking on the Today programme's James Naughtie.

And all before a handsomely paying corporate audience at London's Savoy Hotel, the proceeds from the Turning the Tables business lunch going to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Low blow

While charity lay behind the occasion, little was evident between the first two combatants. The body language, all origami-folded arms and crossed legs, spoke volumes.

"Blonde bombshell" Ann Widdecombe asks the questions
And then there were the actual words exchanged. Mr Campbell: "As a starter for 10, can I ask you to name the president of Tajikistan?"

It was a low blow leaving Mr Paxman no option. He immediately performed the return-fire-with-alternative-question manoeuvre, asking incredulously: "Why on earth would you think that would be useful information?"

Soon, the wrangling turned to money. In a deceptively airy manner Mr Campbell began: "You're paid more than the prime minister, chancellor and me combined -" only to be interrupted by his interviewee protesting that this was not the case.

"So what are you paid then? For Start the Week?"

Too late, Mr Paxman realised he had stumbled into a trap. "I don't know," was all he could answer.

"Well let's ask your agent, she's in the audience," threatened Mr Campbell.

Forgotten ministers

Money, in fact, was a theme he was warming to, with him soon demanding did Mr Paxman "think public service broadcasters should be off writing books" - in a deeply scandalised tone that left no doubt that Mr Campbell viewed the activity as akin to being "off flashing at strangers".

Mr Paxman rallied, butting in to ask what the dickens was wrong with writing books.

Mr Campbell was having none of it: "You interrupt when you're interviewing, don't also interrupt when you're being interviewed!"

James Naughtie: A severe case of interview interruptus
All the while, the Downing Street spin-king kept up his disorienting strategy of throwing in impossible questions the answers to which no even half-normal person would know, like "who is the president of Uzbekistan?" and "who is the foreign minister of Pakistan?"

"I have interviewed him!" Mr Paxman triumphantly declared of the latter. "I've forgotten his name," he then added. But his spirit was far from broken: "And I must say, I've interviewed plenty of your ministers and don't remember any of them."

"The difference between us is I've got a filter in there ... and if I needed to know something I would know it tonight."


The second gladiatorial contest was introduced by Sir Bernard Ingham - a Number Ten ancestor of Mr Campbell's - as "the opportunity a million Tories would die for: Get Naughtie."

It was "the blonde bombshell versus The Mouth": Miss Widdecombe asking the questions of James Naughtie.

She wasted little time before getting to the heart of the matter. "Do you regard an interview as a duel?" she wanted to know.

"No," Mr Naughtie confidently asserted. Equally confidently, he then backtracked: "Sometimes."

"Which is it, then?" Miss Widdecombe asked with the deadly certainty of a prosecutor at a show trial.

Mr Naughtie's nerve appeared to break at this point as he veered off at length on the subject of those politicians who knowingly fill the airwaves with gobbledygook to avoid answering questions, and cited Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Chancellor Gordon Brown as classic wafflers.

Interviewer's prerogative

Miss Widdecombe exercised the interviewer's prerogative and interrupted him: "Have we actually got to the stage where the personality of the interviewer is more important than the person being interviewed?"

Mr Naughtie: "Oh no. I-"

"But then people wouldn't buy your book," the former shadow home secretary cut in.

"Oh, thank you very much, it's 16.99 from all good bookshops and-"

But before he could finish she was off again, barging through each and every answer he gave, reducing him to a series of disconnected stutters.

And then she went for the kill and unleashed the ultimate weapon: "Mr Naughtie, I'm afraid we're out of time."

See also:

17 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Why sorry may not be enough
12 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Campbell to leave frontline
13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Spinning out of control
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