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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
BBC and the 'Paxman problem'
By Roger Mosey
Head of Television News

At a time when some other broadcasters are calling for interviewers to be more deferential, why does the BBC continue to stand by its tenacious presenter Jeremy Paxman - who tonight interviews Tony Blair?

Jeremy Paxman during his interview with Charles Kennedy
While Paxman has been criticised, he has also won numerous awards

There has been a "Paxman problem" for many years.

Sometimes it has been a "Paxman and Humphrys problem" - reflecting those who don't like the interviewers on our two flagship daily current affairs programmes, Newsnight and Today.

So in the mid-1990s while I was editor of Today, I was asked to lead a project into "courtesy in interviewing".

The then director general and a couple of BBC governors accepted the view that there was too much rudeness and aggression in presenters' interviewing techniques - and they wanted to know the extent to which audiences agreed.

We did our research thoroughly. Experts were despatched across the UK with their clipboards, and we asked a wide range of listeners and viewers for their opinion.

There is firm audience backing for the Paxman role in our national life

What did they think of the interviewers and the politicians? Were we fair or unfair? And would a different style suit the spirit of our times?

The results were unambiguous. If anything, our audiences thought we were too soft on the politicians.

Many wanted us to give them an even harder time, and Paxman and Humphrys were among the BBC's most respected broadcasters. The courtesy in interviewing project was quietly dropped.

The Paxman interviews

So along with our own judgements - and that of our peers in the industry who have given Jeremy countless awards - there is firm audience backing for the Paxman role in our national life.

And that's why we decided to make "The Paxman Interviews" one of the main elements of our election campaign coverage in 2005.

Frank Bough, Sally Magnussen and Jeremy Paxman on Breakfast Time in 1986
Born in Leeds on 11 May 1950
Graduates from St Catharine's College, Cambridge
After an apprenticeship in local radio, he spends three years as a reporter in Northern Ireland
Returns to London in 1977 and joins the BBC's Tonight programme and subsequently Panorama.
In 1985 he becomes anchor of the new Six O'Clock News and moves to Breakfast Time the following year
Becomes anchor of Newsnight in 1989
Named the Royal Television Society's Interview/Presenter of the Year three times - 1997, 1998 and 2001

They're on BBC One in the peak schedule, and they were designed to put the leaders of the three UK parties in the spotlight in a way that simply won't happen elsewhere on British television.

No audiences, no texting, no comments from viewers: just Jeremy talking for 30 minutes to the men who want to be prime minister.

We wanted the interviews to be challenging. It's a huge tribute to British politicians that they take part in robust interview programmes on television and radio, and many of them over the years have said they respond better to "'fast bowling" than to patsy questions.

When we agreed this series, nobody had any illusions that they would be anything other than a vigorous exchange of views. The programmes should be fair, but they should not be soft.

Question of taste

Now, I absolutely understand that this is not to everyone's taste.

Some viewers believe Jeremy goes too far, though others would sometimes like him to be even tougher.

But I'd add two things. First, Jeremy Paxman is only one member of our team.

There will also be interviews in this campaign by Sir David Frost and by the Breakfast team, and they will emphasise the breadth of the BBC News offering - and how we vary our interviewing techniques.

Jeremy Paxman and Tony Blair
Politicians respect Paxman's tenacity, according to his bosses

Second, Jeremy and the Newsnight team would be the first to acknowledge that not every interview is perfect. It's a high-wire act and we don't get every single aspect right.

That said, I'm hugely proud of what Newsnight does night in and night out.

I'm confident that its style is valued by our viewers, and Jeremy Paxman is a great asset to the BBC.

I equally respect the sincerity of the opposite view, most recently articulated by Jon Snow - who called for less cynicism in interviewing.

He was quoted as saying: "I don't think we are very deferential on television any more. Paxo has seen to that. We could do with a bit more of it."

We should perhaps note that Mr Snow's programme Channel 4 News was about to go into direct competition with Jeremy's interview series, but at least there was an immediate test in the same timeslot of whether the audience wanted a lack of deference or more deference.

And there was gratifying proof of what the audience prefers.

2,400,000 people watched Jeremy with Charles Kennedy on BBC One, while just one third of that figure - 800,000 people - watched the more deferential Channel 4 News.

I'm happy with their verdict and I'm pleased there's a choice, but I believe we would be the poorer without some interviewing that makes politicians show their mettle.


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