Paxman now reserves the right to address a guest as ‘Mr Idiot’


By Kenneth Roy

There was a grisly fascination in watching a BBC presenter, Jeremy Paxman, address an interviewee as an idiot in a recent edition of Newsnight, the late-night current affairs slot with a diminishing audience. It was not quite as gross as it sounds. He gave his guest the courtesy of prefixing the word ‘idiot’ with the word ‘Mr’. What he actually called him was ‘Mr Idiot in Brussels’.

This unusual exchange between the two studios followed a repeated use of the word ‘idiot’ (to describe the man in Brussels) by a Daily Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne. Oborne – Paxman’s guest in London – is a journalist of notoriously mercurial opinions. Over the summer he was to be found one week describing David Cameron as potentially Britain’s greatest prime minister of the modern era (if not ever – I cannot remember the exact scope of his unexpected greatness) and a week or two later claiming that Cameron had sunk into a sewer. But that’s politics. Or, rather, that’s Oborne.

‘You shouldn’t call people idiots and I insist you stop doing it’ – or words to that effect – should have been Paxman’s response to Oborne’s inexcusable rudeness. It would have been any reasonable person’s response. Not only did Paxman let Oborne away with it; they were both smirking like overgrown schoolboys. Paxman then asked ‘Mr Idiot in Brussels’ what he had to say about it all. Mr Idiot had very little to say. He indicated that, in view of the abusive language, he would not be participating further, removed his earpiece, and left the studio.

Back in London, Oborne was still smirking. Paxman remonstrated with him in a joshing sort of way. There is, of course, little chance that the man in Brussels, who had been invited by the BBC to give his opinion on something or other, will ever subject himself to such an indignity again. But, hey, so what? No doubt some other ‘idiot’ can always be found to replace him; despite the declining influence of current affairs telly, there is an almost inexhaustible supply of pundits salivating at the opportunity to appear on it. Vanity TV will always have a certain appeal.

Only last week, at the Labour Party conference, another newspaper columnist with an exceedingly high opinion of himself, the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart, was encouraged by another BBC journalist, one Norman Smith, to deliver an assessment of Ed Miliband, Hoggart going on to mock the Labour leader’s ‘deep-set panda eyes’ and the turn of his mouth, as Hoggart saw it. It was, as I wrote at the time, a deeply unpleasant performance, although Hoggart did not go quite as far as Oborne: he did not call the object of his rant an idiot.

Oddly, however, no one at the BBC thought of insulting Alessio Rastani, the self-styled trader who confessed to a presenter on the same BBC news channel that he went to bed every night dreaming of another recession.

At no time did Smith, the chief political correspondent, attempt to stop Hoggart; on the contrary, he seemed to be rather enjoying the personal humiliation of Ed Miliband. Exactly a week later, at half past six on Sunday evening, I watched the same BBC news channel report the start of the Conservative Party conference. My confident prediction that there would be no reference to the physical characteristics of David Cameron turned out to be completely accurate. There was no sign of Hoggart, for which we must be thankful; and, in place of Smith, there was the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, a contemporary of Cameron’s at Eton, who was wholly respectful in his reporting of the prime minister.

It seems, then, that the BBC is selective in its targets. But perhaps the greatest prime minister of the modern era, if not ever – the one sunk in a sewer – is a special case. It is possible that just about everyone else in public life is considered fair game by BBC presenters and their media chums, and that public figures must now expect to have their deep-set panda eyes scrutinised or to be called idiots whenever some opinion of theirs fails to impress such high priests as Paxman and Oborne.

Oddly, however, no one at the BBC thought of insulting Alessio Rastani, the self-styled trader who confessed to a presenter on the same BBC news channel that he went to bed every night dreaming of another recession. ‘We don’t really care whether they’re going to fix the economy,’ he said, ‘our job is to make money from it’. Rastani, who operates out of a semi in Bexleyheath and is not registered with the Financial Services Authority,  admits to being a self-publicist. ‘I agreed to go on because I’m an attention seeker,’ he said later.

When viewers complained about the appearance of this extraordinary character, and the seriounesss with which his views were received, Ray Snoddy took up their case on Newswatch, the BBC’s weekly examination of its own news coverage. Snoddy didn’t get very far since the BBC refused to comment on the case or to put up a spokesperson.

Rastani must think he got off lightly. At least no one at the BBC called him an idiot.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review