Why nobody can give a political turkey a right, royal stuffing like Paxo can…

MORTIFIED! Will my wife or Auntie BBC – let alone Britain’s political class, which must be heaving a  huge sigh of collective relief – ever be the same again?

Jeremy Paxman’s announcement that he’s quitting BBC2’s Newsnight prog, after 25 years, has left Mrs. Ash bereft, not to say yours truly without good cause to remain awake until 23.30 (Spanish time), before dozing off in the comfort of hearing yet another political turkey suffer public humiliation by a thousand, deft, verbal cuts.

For those not privileged to have witnessed Paxman’s acerbic interviewing style, imagine the Spanish Inquisition and a Soviet show trial rolled into one, as – giving all due respect to Kipling’s immortal poem, If – he treated all as impostors deserving the same disdain.

With the possible exception of the late Sir Robin Day, who founded the post-modernist school of torture by TV, no-one but Paxman has exploded more pomposity or shattered as many overblown egos.

Media mythology claims the abrasive Yorkshireman coined his approach to interviewees by first asking himself, ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ He didn’t. It’s a quote lifted from Times journalist, Louis Heron, who admitted he’d heard it from a colleague.

However, what’s undeniable is the grand inquisitor was the people’s champion, answering their call to probe for truth and accountability by – preferably – steamrollering blusterers into a flat, mushy mess of angst.

So, if he cost £800,000 a year of taxpayers’ dosh, Paxman was worth every penny.

And even if the dreary mechanics of power is the equivalent of brewer’s droop to those disinterested in knowing how the wool is being dragged over their eyes, nothing quite rivalled the sight of a supercilious grandee being give a right, royal Paxo stuffing.

Probably the peak of his reign of intimidation was the demolition of Michael Howard in 1997, when Paxman asked the former Home Secretary the same question 12, successive times…‘Did you threaten to overrule him?’

ARCH INQUISITOR: But who can follow Jeremy Paxman on BBC's flagship Newsnight current affairs show?

ARCH INQUISITOR: But who can follow Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s flagship Newsnight current affairs show?

Few recall the context – the dismissal of the head of Britain’s prison service – or knew Paxman sent Howard a bottle of champagne by way of an apology. Only the interview will live on as a shrine to big, small-screen, political melodrama.

The 2005 general election saw a similar verbal punch-up, this time with Saddam Hussein sycophant, George Galloway, in which Paxman accused the now Respect MP of threatening him, which ended with Galloway walking out of the interview.

Later that year, when David Cameron was running to be the Tory’s head toff, Paxman pressed him on his directorship of a nightclub firm and left the future Prime Minister blathering to explain the ingredients of cocktails like Pink Pussy and Slippery Nipple.

In 2011, he even called a European Commission spokesman ‘Mr Idiot’.

Accused in recent years of being – in his own words – ‘clapped out’, Paxman proved detractors wrong in 2012, by shredding Chloe Smith, then a junior at the Treasury, put up to defend a knee-jerk decision to freeze fuel duty.

In fairness to the fledgling minister, of whom nothing has been heard since, she was raw meat to a voracious rottweiler and whoever threw her into Paxman’s pit – most finger her boss, Chancellor George Osborne – was guilty of heinous cowardice.

Some, however, gave better than they got on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show.

 

Disgraced newspaper tycoon, Conrad Black, labelled Paxman a ‘gullible, priggish, English fool’ when questioned about his imprisonment for fraud.

And, taken to task over his view that voting was a waste of time, gobby comic, Russell Brand, actually forced Paxman to admit he’d also failed to vote in a recent election.

Whatever the hangdog presenter’s personal politics, though, he never wore his colours in action and his quality of mercilessness has never been restrained, whether it was the Prime Minister or leader of the British National Party sitting opposite.

Even Paxman’s BBC masters have felt the sharp cut of his tongue.

To wide acclaim, Paxman was never more scornful about their handiwork than over Auntie’s monumental cock-up of a Newsnight investigation into the Jimmy Savile sex-abuse scandal, which he damned as ‘contemptible’.

Recently he even panned the output of Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra as ‘hell’.

Meanwhile, Paxman’s remark that the organisation was ‘smug’ not only didn’t win rave reviews from top brass, they demanded he and the equally-forensic John Humphrys, of Radio 4’s Today programme, study an in-house report on ‘courtesy in interviewing’.

Andrew Marr’s Sunday show exemplifies that blandness, although it hasn’t gone unnoticed the former editor of The Independent tends to treat his Left-of-wing guests with greater deference than, say, the likes of UKIP’s Nigel Farage.

But, in their skewered judgements, what legions of the Beeb’s mandarins have singularly failed to appreciate is the public want exactly what Paxman and Humphrys deliver…the blood of political humbugs on the studio carpet.

Even when he side-stepped into the realms of light entertainment by becoming University Challenge’s inquisitor, Paxman’s withering chidings were no less barbed and it’s glad tidings he’ll continue with that show.

NO RESPECT: Outspoken George Galloway, then the new Respect MP, walked off air during Paxman's grilling

‘Come on, come on’, he demands, with undisguised irritation, as the students strain over brain-numbing questions about astrophysics or the sovereignty of South Pacific atolls.

Strangely, though Paxman is a broadcasting icon, his life’s work hasn’t had mass appeal, because Newsnight’s audience rarely tips 600,000 – including a 10% boost when the man himself hosts it – and University Challenge is hardly The X Factor.

But, earlier this year, when he grew a beard, even the social media was fizzing (for the record, my wife reckons it was to hide a nip-and-tuck job – and, believe me, she can tell a pair of bought-in boobs half a mile away).

With Panorama blown as a byword for probing journalism, the problem for news junkies like me is: who replaces the irreplaceable on Newsnight – surely not the grating Kirsty Wark or a featherweight cutie like Emily Maitlis?

But, more to the point, how is Mrs. Ash ever going to sleep tight without a dulcet ‘Goodnight’ from Jeremy, the man of her dreams?

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How NOT to be an MP – and how Sunny Jim said I’d have to ‘smarten down’ to be one

It’s been about four decades since the politics’ bug bit deeply enough to inspire me to join a party. And, in retrospect, when I signed up with Labour I was a Blairite – socially liberal, but sympathetic to the blessings of capitalism – before Blair was even out of short pants.

The dalliance didn’t last long because, frankly, I wasn’t too enamoured at being called  ‘Comrade’ and I thought the far-Left was as inveterately potty as it is now, except in those days of beer and butties for the TUC in Harold Wilson’s Downing Street, the leadership had to pay it lip service.

Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ revolution energised me; clearly he could walk and chew gum at the same time, a feat that was rumoured to have defeated US President Gerald Ford.

By default, I nearly – well, almost nearly – became an MP, because James Callaghan, who followed Wilson as the UK’s Prime Minister (briefly, thank providence), took a shine to me when yours truly and a fellow hack prised him out of a tight spot.

Tall and avuncular, but the craftiest of operators, Sunny Jim was Foreign Secretary at the time and due to address the faithful at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, until an event of import erupted and caught him off guard. So momentous was it, it’s completely slipped my memory, but, with no spinmeister on hand, we were drafted in to fettle a few words.

So we banged away on a portable typewriter in his hotel suite at the Midland Hotel until four in the morning, trying to fashion an immortal slogan as the room trembled to Jim’s stentorian snoring.

Work prevented me from witnessing the speech, but he invited me for a drink later and thanked me with a five-bob bottle of Cyprus sherry (whatever happened to Champagne Socialism, I wanted to ask).

Instead Callaghan enquired, ‘Have you ever thought of standing?’

‘I am standing,’ I replied stupidly, leaning against the bar.

‘No, I meant standing for Parliament,’ he corrected me. ‘I think you’d make a pretty fair MP and I’m sure we can find you a winnable seat somewhere. But you’ll have to do something about your attire.’

Clad in one of Cecil Gee’s finest blue mohair creations, crisp white shirt, black knitted tie – a la James Bond – I thought I was the cat’s whiskers or some part of a canine’s anatomy.

‘What’s wrong with the way I look?’ I demanded, a tad irked.

‘Too…er, smart,’ said the Foreign Sec. ‘You’ll need to dress down a bit. Get yourself to John Collier and find something grey, the duller the better. And dump those pointy Italian shoes. You’ll need to be more conservative – that’s conservative with a small C, of course.’

For various reasons – including a word to the wise from an MP friend, who warned, ‘You don’t want to be at the mercy of the public; they’re all b******s’ – I decided to stick around Grub Street and pursue the wordsmith’s trade (besides, way back then, the pay was better and MPs hadn’t cottoned on to being as ‘creative’ with their exes as we journos were).

What prompts me to recall the Callaghan incident is that, according to a new study, reported in the Journal of Public Economics, the electorate prefers good-looking, well-dressed election candidates to dowdy, old frumps, like Jim and pipeman Harold were.

So, regardless of how intellectually shallow they may be, the more attractive someone seeking office is, the more trustworthy, intelligent, likeable and able they are perceived.

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

The study – based on a survey of 2,000 candidates and 10,000 voters in Finland– followed in the wake of revelations that a poster photo of David Cameron had been digitally enhanced to make the Prime Minister look a smarter alec than he is (which, given the self-inflicted lumber he’s currently in, wouldn’t seem too challenging even for a Photoshop novice).

However facile this seems, the authors of this report insist, ‘Attractive people are seen as more successful in general, which is as true of politics as it is of showbusiness.’

Clearly, the Finns hadn’t heard of Britain’s roly-poly Communities minister, Eric ‘Double Chicken Tikka Masala & Chips’ Pickles and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, done up like a distressed turf accountant.

Nonetheless, it might explains why super-smoothie Blair could sell fridges to Eskimos, why hunky Nick Clegg leads the Lib-Dems, not baggy-trousered Vince Cable, and why all freshmen/women MPs are packed off to a ‘style consultant’ to be cloned in a make-over before they’re even allowed a sniff of Parliament.

And you’d better not be follicly challenged in British politics. Churchill was the only baldie in over 60 years to be elected Prime Minister, but he compensated for his shiny pate with charisma, cognac and trademark stogie cigars. Helping win WW2 might also have counted.

By the by, just in case political history geeks think me remiss, hair-free Alec Douglas Home was never elected to the job. He was imposed on No.10 by the Tories to oust Harold ‘Supermac’ MacMillan, whose party chums convinced him he was dead or dying.

Therefore, if you’re partial to the chimes of Big Ben, like long holiday recesses, adore the sound of your own voice and can stomach an hour a week feigning sympathy for bleating constituents, your country needs you.

It helps if you’ve never done a proper job – if you’re not an Old Etonian, straight out of uni and a year or two’s apprenticeship as a party HQ dogsbody or political researcher to an unctuous backbencher will do – and you’re half way to being elected.

Don’t forget, either, to dress appropriately…classy, not flashy and something subtle, like a tie or scarf in the party colour, is a useful addendum to demonstrate loyalty (until you join the back-stabbers).

Get your teeth and acne sorted, too, because high-definition TV is a real image-buster and you don’t wanted to be caught out looking like a spotty, buck-toothed loser on Newsnight, while getting a verbal stuffing by Jeremy Paxo.

In short, then, remember: youth and image are cheered, age and experience just jeered.

And me? Obviously, I was way ahead of my time. Today, though, I could have been a contender…but heaven help the electorate if I was!

‘Savile-gate’ bungling is yet another example of Auntie’s arrogance

Thanks to the ‘Savile-gate’ scandal, the BBC is on the rack as never before.

And it’s doubtful good, old Auntie – as Brits have affectionately dub the state-owned broadcaster for decades – will ever emerge the same, grand chatelaine of the nation’s image again, when probes into paedophilia, iffy editorial judgement calls and management bungling are over.

Even veteran World Affairs Editor John Simpson admits it is ‘the worst crisis’ to hit the Beeb in the 50 years he’s globe-trotted on its behalf.

That’s even a slight understatement, because the situation Auntie finds herself in – corsets tightening to near asphyxiation – gets acutely more critical by the day.

As the police lift layer after rancid layer off Savile’s reign as ‘probably the worst serial paedophile Britain has seen’ – to quote one senior detective – and question alleged aides (i.e. Gary Glitter) in his obsession with abusing vulnerable, under-age girls, other explosive revelations are primed to detonate.

BAD NEWS BEARER: Veteran World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, says it is the ‘worst crisis’ to hit the BBC

Plods working on Operation Yewtree, codename for the Savile inquiry, say they have up to 400 leads and believe ‘eight to ten BBC insiders’ are in the frame to be grilled. This, I understand, does not necessarily include a host of celebs, who owe their fame to Auntie’s largesse. So, be prepared for further shocks.

It all promises to be a real smack in the eye for the purblind apologists, who castigate the media for posing fair questions why the BBC didn’t investigate Savile (and allegations of a rampant sex-fest in Radio 1’s heyday of the 1970s and 80s) earlier, when the rumour mill was in full grind.

What went on, contend those defending the indefensible, were aberrations that should be put into the context of an era of unfettered debauchery and the BBC’s ethos should remain unchallenged, its output the envy of the world.

Though I agree with the general gist that the BBC is uniquely exceptional – certainly in terms of popular entertainment, the arts, culture, even soaps – perhaps it’s also uniquely haughty.

So to blame the Press as vengefully picking at Aunties bones is not a moral stance. It merely reflects a minority’s dread that any overdue swilling out of the Broadcasting House pigsty will see their right-on self-righteousness replaced by opinion-formers more accurately reflecting mainstream values.

And, hopefully, what will dawn is the realisation that an Orwellian regime far too big for its boots can no longer be trusted to regulate itself and sweep any self-inflicted scandals under its plush carpets.

At least one BBC heavyweight has emerged with credit. Sir Roger Jones, a former governor, heeded the rumours swirling round ‘creepy’ Savile a decade ago and banned the weirdo from appearing on Children In Need.

SAVILE SPOILER: In his BBC days, Sir Roger Jones banned the ‘creepy’ DJ from Children In Need 10 years ago

But who else in management took a principled stand in opening their ears and eyes to the potential dangers lurking within and was brave enough to be proactive? Or, as I’ve queried before, was Savile just too big, too powerful, too bankable an asset to upset?

Aside from the grotesque perv and the controversial axing of a Newsnight probe into him, recently there have been numerous instances of BBC brazen arrogance, like the fork-tongued half-truths about the millions in licence-fee payers moolah paid to top performers.

With a heel-turn worthy of Strictly Come Dancing, the issue was deviously defused. No names, no pack drills were released, just amounts, which amounted to zilch without the public knowing exactly who the humungous fees-earners were.

Then came the scandal of 148 presenters – countless familiar faces – worming their way through tax loopholes, by declaring themselves ‘companies’, thus escaping draconian PAYE, as paid by us plebs, despite the BBC being their main employer.

Ever amenable Auntie turned a blind eye to such ‘creative tax avoidance’ until HM Customs and Revenue threatened to intervene.

And whatever happened to the mysterious Balen Report of 2004, which examined charges of ‘anti-Israel bias’ in BBC coverage of the Middle East? Despite a Freedom of Information request, Michael Balen’s findings were – and still are – kept under padlock, Auntie having coughed up £350,000 to my learned friends to keep them secret.

In fact, all too often the old girl’s been caught with her knickers down, setting the agenda, rather than complying with the BBC’s Charter to report the world with ‘due accuracy and impartiality’.

Back in the 1990s, for instance, it barely hid its gusto for Britain joining the €uro. And last year, global-warming zealot, Lord Chris Patten – chairman of the BBC Trust, guardians of the corporation’s waning credibility – endorsed a controversial report calling for more bias on climate change, rather than less or even to striking a fair balance.

This, again, is symptomatic of an organisation the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne recently criticised as, ‘colonised and captured by a narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating liberal elite, contemptuous of ordinary people and of ordinary morality.’

So the question is: Can the BBC still be trusted with the crown jewels of the nation’s integrity?

According to its own opinion poll last week, the answer is ‘No’.

And if the faceless power-brokers haunting Auntie’s crumbling Ivory Tower don’t get that message, they shouldn’t be there.

‘Savile-gate’ – how Jim has left BBC bosses in a right, old fix

As the midnight oil burns at the BBC, are Auntie’s spinmeisters – their customary, right-on smugness rattled as never before – trying to put an angle on ‘Savile-gate’ that’s acceptable to a skeptical outside world they’d normally disdain?

And elsewhere, are veteran DJs from Radio 1’s heyday of the 1970s and 80s, wigs askew and jowls aquiver, seeking out the best briefs to hold their clammy hands if and when the plods come knocking?

Whatever the answers to those questions, it’s a fair bet that the outcome of a Scotland Yard probe into allegedly serial perverted crimes by the late Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile OBE, who died a year ago, aged 84, will see a savage indictment of BBC mismanagement and the deconstruction of many a haughty reputation.

In fact, the Metropolitan Police, who were quick to label the publicity vulture as a ‘predatory sex offender’ on a ‘national scale’, is following up 120, separate lines of enquiry dating back to 1959.

I’m sure, too, my learned friends will be clearing their diaries in anticipation of a deluge of new clients. Some will be household names from pop’s bygone era; others will be seeking retribution, saying they were victims of Savile’s depraved lust for young flesh.

George Entwistle, still warming up his chair as BBC Director General (DG), has already conceded the whacky weirdo was a wrong ‘un and apologised to any who may have been molested by him on BBC turf.

Entwistle’s also flip-flopped on demands for an in-house inquiry, first refusing one, but then performing a pirouette Darcey Bussell would envy. Yes, he says now, we’ll hold one (and preferably by a Leveson-style, independent judge, I hope), once the police have finished theirs.

However, an immediate problem for the DG – a veteran BBC stalwart, but only weeks into the top job – is to get all his ducks in a row over an axed Newsnight exposé of Savile, before ITV went ahead with its documentary, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, aired earlier this month.

LOOKING FOR A FIX: New BBC Director General, George Entwistle, wrestles to deal with the fall-out over the Savile scandal

That rumours of the deceased DJ’s penchant for under-aged girls (and boys, apparently) echoed for decades round Broadcasting House, it seems odd in extremis that the BBC flagship news prog ditched its take on the Jim’ll Fix It crank after a six-week investigation.

Then there’s some iffy chronology about who at the top of the Corporation know what and when about it. According to the Sunday Times, Entwistle was said to be first aware of the Newsnight story being canned ‘when it was reported in the Press in December.’

Yet it didn’t make headlines until January 7 (though, naturally – as in the fog of war – facts can become clouded and memories blurred).

But these discrepancies following the no-show of the Newsnight inquiry – a decision made for ‘editorial reasons’ by its editor, Peter Rippon, insists the Beeb – only fuel speculation that there was a conspiracy of silence within Auntie’s hierarchy to covered up any abhorrent crimes Savile may have committed, because he was one of their most bankable assets.

Over 40 people now say they were his victims, while more are emerging daily. And, as I’ve posted here before (see: The strange case of Jimmy Savile, harmless oddball or devious pervert – Oct 5, 2012), some allegations made against him are so beyond repugnant, I won’t insult you by repeating them.

ABUSED ON AIR: Ex-Radio 1 jockette, Liz Kershaw, claims she was persistently groped by a colleague while presenting her show

Meanwhile, in the wake of ‘Savile-gate’, a can of potentially explosive worms is opening up concerning the entire Radio 1 ethos of his day. And surprisingly perhaps, some normally lippy, famous ‘voices’ appear to have been overcome by collective amnesia about events of 30 and 40 years ago, though not plucky Liz Kershaw.

One of the station’s first jockettes, she claims she was persistently groped while on air by a colleague and, on complaining, was told, ‘Don’t you like it? Are you a lesbian?’

Of Savile, Kershaw, now 54 – who described the macho culture of Radio 1 in the 80s as like a ‘rugby club locker-room’– told the Today Programme, ‘The rumours were there, the jokes were there. It was an open secret, Everyone joked about Jimmy Savile and young girls.’

And he wasn’t alone. The late John Peel, lauded as an icon of pop culture, made no secret of his fondness for teenyboppers and actually married a 15-year-old named Shirley Anne Milburn, when he was 26 and working in Texas. Some years later, after their divorce in 1973,  the former Mrs. P committed suicide.

It’s my belief, then, that any BBC investigation must not be limited to Savile alone, but should probe deeply into the off-air antics of any Radio 1 presenter about whom there is a whiff of salacious scandal.

A thorough, transparent cleansing of Auntie’s Augean Stables is required if Britain’s premier pop-music radio station is to retain a shred of credibility.

Because an increasingly vocal public is demanding to know that if the BBC ignored all the warning signs that it was sheltering a sex monster in its midst in Savile, were others overlooked who were similarly culpable?