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Jeremy Paxman in conversation with Lorraine Heggessey: 'I don't miss Newsnight'

“My great lesson of the past year is that the news is completely unimportant – you don’t need to pay the slightest attention to it.”

Thus, Jeremy Paxman surprised a packed Media Society audience when asked whether he missed being Inquisitor-General of BBC’s Newsnight this week.

He even went onto say that journalism, as he knew it, was “in overall decline and that news, qua news, is all over”.

“For most of us, all the news does is just to make us unhappy and worried. What’s the point of that?”, he asked his interlocutor Lorraine Heggessy, a former colleague who went on to become the first woman to be Controller of BBC One.

'All the news does is make us unhappy. What's the point of that?'

What about Brexit, she asked. “Of course Brexit is important but does it make any difference whether we know at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that the fisheries negotiations have been successfully completed or not, or whether we hear about it a 7, or 8 or 10 o’clock at night, or read about it the next morning”.

Perhaps to be ‘first’ with the news, suggested Heggessy. “Well that’s a really trivial, juvenile concern if I may say so”, he added, at the event at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair on Wednesday January 11, and included a book-signing.

“Speed is a very, very silly preoccupation,” Paxman insisted. “Speed is not important - understanding is important. And speed is very often the enemy of understanding.”

'We had a slogan - yesterday's news tomorrow!'

Did he then agree with Tony Hall, the current director-general of the BBC who had said in a speech that day that the organisation was better at telling people the news than helping them understand it, and argued for more of what he called “slow news”.

“Well nobody was slower than us at Newsnight – we had a slogan – ‘Yesterday’s news tomorrow!’”, amusing his audience once again.

Another office slogan was: “It’s not enough to succeed - others must be seen to fail”.

Paxman said: “I think this blitz of half-appreciated fact is not terribly helpful to anybody. What I want is news that makes me think. Or gives me some sense of fellow-feeling - although that sometimes leads to the Fergal Keane, ‘watch me while I weep’ sort of broadcasting.”

Picture: Jem Collins

'It was probably a mistake'

Recalling his days at Newsnight, he said: “There were some nice people there but there were some pretty horrible people there too and I didn’t care much for the atmosphere. Editors came and editors went but none of the managed to affect a great deal of change while they were there. But that’s true of lots of institutions.”

Asked why he went public about his difficult relationship with his father in his latest book, ‘A Life in Questions’, Paxman said that it was probably a mistake, and “only an encouragement to minxes like you!”

“But it’s true, as I say in the book, I had a feeling of brute hostility or hatred towards him much of the time and I don’t feel proud of that but I feel it was understandable. We were both pretty red-blooded individuals, and I don’t blame anybody for it. But I would have been a different person at the end of it all. I recognise that it was a big influence on how I grew up and I wish it had been slightly different”.

And asked later whether the relationship in any way contributed to his becoming a fearless, some say insensitive interviewer, for example when he asked Gordon Brown bluntly why “nobody liked him”, or had challenged the late Charles Kennedy on his solitary drinking, he said it might well have been an influence because his father was “very, very short-tempered”.

Jeremy Paxman – ‘A Life in Questions’ is published by HarperCollins.

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