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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 05:29 GMT
A day in the life of Newsnight
By Jeremy Paxman
Presenter, Newsnight

Jeremy Paxman
Jeremy Paxman: 'That anything gets on the air at all is often astonishing'
How does it work? is the usual question.

There is a fond assumption by much of the audience that the presenter decides who they would like to talk to that evening, a phone call is made and, obediently, the required guest appears in the studio at 10.30pm.

As a working hypothesis, it is about as wrong as could be.

Where to start. Well, firstly, the presenters. The essential skills necessary for the job, are, as Nicholas Tomalin once wrote about journalism, a plausible manner, a little literary ability and rat-like cunning. On many programmes, even the last two requirements can be waived.

The day begins with a morning meeting where sad dreams are aired, it usually bears little relationship to what goes on air
Kelvin Mackenzie once invented something called the News Bunny for the fabulously catastrophic L!ve TV news service. Grizzled old Fleet Street veterans were required to struggle into a furry nylon jumpsuit with enormous ears to report upbeat stories.

They disliked it not so much for the affront to their dignity but because of the appalling smell left by dozens of previous inhabitants.

But the News Bunny once even got eight seconds with Tony Blair (in the days before he could hide behind the security apparatus of Downing Street) which I suppose proves the only people with even less dignity than journalists are politicians.

L!ve TV's News Bunny
On reporting and dignity...
The News Bunny soon disappeared to the celestial carrot field, but was rumoured for a long while to be presenting one of the BBC's major bulletins, disguised in a suit, a friendly smile and a belief that what we all needed was more "good news".

Certainly, 4pm editorial meetings were regularly punctuated with requests that someone stick a new battery into his backside.

Newsnight presenters like to pretend they're different. But all they are is a bit more pompous. For the sad truth is that on many a day they are just pathetically grateful for whatever they are given.

It's true that sometime earlier in the day they may have expressed an urgent need to interview the president of Russia or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. By 10.30pm that night they're relieved to find a research fellow from Luton University and Eric Joyce MP sitting down with them.

I even once had to interview the world Cluedo champion, who arrived dressed as Colonel Mustard. I have a sneaking feeling that the producer responsible went on to edit the programme.

Editorial darwinism

The day begins with a morning meeting where sad dreams are aired. It usually bears as little relationship to what goes on air as a holiday brochure does to the unbuilt hotel you finally occupy.

By five in the evening, the Editor of the Day is beginning to show nervous tics. Some shout a lot. Some go curiously silent. Others laugh in the face of imminent disaster
But by 11am or so a notional running order has emerged. With any luck, a reporter and producer will be offering a film of 10 or 12 minutes, which merely leaves the best part of 40 to fill. The Editor of the Day sets perhaps four stories on the go. Then, a sort of editorial Darwinism happens.

By the early afternoon one proposal will have turned out to be unrealisable for the very good reason that it is nonsense. Another will have collapsed because no guests can be found to contribute to a debate. A third may still show signs of life, with calls out to half-a-dozen possible contributors and a producer and reporter having fun with some elaborate production conceit. The fourth may even be coming together roughly as planned.

You look across the room and catch a handful of conversations. "Yes, I know 10.30 is the middle of the night in Delhi, but we're really interested to know what you think... We'd send a car for you, of course... No we don't normally pay a fee, I'm afraid... well I'm sorry you had a bad experience last time, but I assure you we're most interested in what you have to say" and most hopelessly, "He died three years ago? I'm so sorry, I can't think why he's still in our contact files."

The skill is not just finding people and persuading them to speak, but persuading the right people to do so.

If you want a working definition of a producer's job, it is persuading people to do things they don't want to do. And which are not in their own best interests.

Nerves

Jeremy Paxman interviewing UK PM Tony Blair in 2003
Jeremy Paxman interviewing UK PM Tony Blair in 2003
By five in the evening, the Editor of the Day is beginning to show his nervous tics. Some shout a lot. Some go curiously silent. Others laugh in the face of imminent disaster. In the past, we have had others who have disappeared and been found hours later hiding in the loo.

Although it is the reporters and News Bunnies of Newsnight who get the public attention, the true heroes of the programme are its desk producers, graphics artists and video editors. That anything gets on the air at all is often astonishing.

Personally, I have no idea at all how they manage the production devices they bring off, let alone within the very limited time available.

For the presenter, much the most exciting days are those on which something happens in the late afternoon or early evening, and the whole running order is jettisoned. These shows, on which no-one is quite sure what is going to happen next, and the first you know of who the next guest will be is when they sit down next to you and introduce themselves, are like surfing.

By 11.20pm it's all over and we adjourn to the grim little cell in the basement laughingly called our "hospitality room". Once upon a time this contained some passable canapÚs and a selection of drinks.

Nowadays there may be a couple of bottles of Uzbekistan's finest Riesling and a plate of Monster Munch.


Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10:30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight is 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the links on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Jeremy Paxman's 1997 interview with Michael Howard



SEE ALSO:
Jeremy Paxman biography
20 Oct 04 |  Newsnight


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