Must Try Harder, Mr Paxman

June 1, 2017

I’ve been wondering why I found this week’s television interviews of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn by Jeremy Paxman so hugely disappointing.

The problem, I think, is that Paxo’s interviewing didn’t manage to give us deeper insights into the two party leaders and how their minds work.

His starting point was promising: he had direct, provocative and potentially uncomfortable questions for each of them about why they had once said one thing about a major issue and were now saying something very different. Good start. We have a right and a need to know why our would-be leaders have changed their minds on important topics, and more broadly on how they arrive at judgements on big, complex issues.

But we got very little insight into that. And the reason was that, for all his reputation as a forensically probing interviewer, Paxman didn’t probe. He challenged in a way that held the discussion back rather than taking it forward. He interrupted both May and Corbyn, not to delve deeper and further into what they were saying , but to drag them back again and again to his original question, as if he was trying to force a particular answer out of them.

Of course it’s relevant to see how a prospective head of government handles pressure, but this wasn’t representative of the sort of pressure that a Prime Minister is going to face, except from the media, in the actual business of governing. Paxman behaved like an inquisitor trying to extract a confession, as if that was all we needed to know to be able to make up our minds about whether we could trust either of these potential Premiers. But it isn’t and there are a number of reasons why not.

First, it isn’t a crime to change your mind. Arguably we should be more concerned about people who don’t than about people who do. Holding tenaciously to a fixed position as circumstances change, as new information and implications emerge, is an indicator not of a creative, adaptable and forward-looking mind but of a stubborn, dogmatic and inflexible one. Determination and strength of will can be admirable qualities, but they are not in themselves evidence of having the capacity to make difficult judgements.

Making difficult judgements is exactly what people in leadership roles have to do, whether in business life or in government. They work on problems and opportunities which are complex, multi-faceted and dynamic. Neither the problems nor the opportunities stand still, waiting for you to catch them; they shift and morph as the countless other actions and interactions in the world around continue to take place, bump into, maybe help and often hinder anyone’s original, more local plans and intentions.

We need political leaders who can grapple with issues like this, because that’s the nature of domestic and international affairs and of the job that they’re applying for. This makes it pointless for Paxman to hector Corbyn and May in the ‘did you or did you not’ way that he did. Governing is not like University Challenge, where the questions all have pre-existing right or wrong answers.

What Paxman needed to dwell on was not whether May and Corbyn had changed their minds about things, but why and how and through what process and considerations they had done so. Pursuing them down these lines of inquiry would have offered a much better prospect of yielding insights into the leading candidates for the country’s most important job interview of 2017.

We know you’ve changed your mind on this subject, so let me ask you this…

What caused you to do that?

How did you feel as you were changing your mind from what had previously been a strongly held view?

What considerations led you to a new and different conclusion?

What criteria were most important for you?

What did you decide to re-prioritise and why?

What dilemmas did you face?

What was the toughest moment in the process for you personally?

How did you deal with that?

Questions like these are exploratory rather than accusatory. They might have provided a sustained investigation into the minds of Corbyn and May. What these people think matters. How they think matters even more.

Ultimately what is so disquieting about Mr Paxman’s approach lies in what it might be saying about the news media and about us as electors, about what we pay attention to when it comes to making important decisions.

For the news media, and perhaps especially for television news, there is a need to raise the quality and objectivity of the information that is being delivered. It is not an offshoot of sports or entertainment. It is not primarily a visual spectacle. Governing is not a simple business. It should not be treated simplistically.

Voting inevitably culminates in a yes or no choice, but the process of arriving at that choice point is best served by being as broadly, deeply and thoroughly informed as possible. The Paxman interviews should have served that informative process. They didn’t. Whether either of the candidates did themselves justice or not, we simply cannot tell. And that increases the danger of making a poorly-informed choice on Election Day.

Whatever outcome that produces, we should continue to agitate against interviewing that leaves us no wiser than we were before.

Alan Robertson

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