BBC presenter Andrew Marr believes Jeremy Paxman interviewing David Cameron and Ed Miliband in last week’s election programme was “not a good replacement” for a head-to-head debate.
The veteran political journalist, who described his former BBC colleague as “a genuinely tortured, angry individual”, said there is a danger for interviewers of “forgetting that we are not the ones standing for election”.
“No disrespect to Jeremy Paxman, but it would have been a lot more interesting had it been head to head,” Marr said at the London School of Economics’ Polis Journalism Conference.
He said that there was “no doubt in my mind” Cameron had “won a major victory” by avoiding a head-to-head debate because he would not have been able to dismiss Miliband in the way he does in the House of Commons “by sneering at him, swatting him down”. Instead, Cameron and Miliband will this week take part in a debate with five other party leaders on ITV.
Marr said: “My assumption was that had that debate taken place people would have been surprised, relatively speaking, by how well Ed did versus David Cameron.
“He wouldn’t have had to be brilliant. He wouldn’t have had to do very well. But there would have been a perception and that would have started to change things and the dynamic of the campaign.
“And I was sure that’s what Ed Miliband thought as well which is why he was so desperate for that to take place. David Cameron, ditto, desperate for it not to take place.”
Paxman interviewing Miliband last week (picture: Reuters)
He added: “So replacing that with a good 'Paxmaning', for both of them, while entertaining, was not a good replacement.
“I thought, I mean, the thing about Jeremy is that he is a genuinely tortured, angry individual – and you get the real Jeremy. He looks disdainful and contemptuous and furious with his guests because he by and large is. You can’t fake these things on television.
“But there is a danger for all of us, as it were, in the interviewer’s chair to forget that we are not the ones standing for election. And I thought Ed Miliband did score [on Thursday] when he said: ‘Jeremy, you’re important, you’re not that important.’”
Marr, a former editor of The Independent, was also critical of Miliband and other politicians who have been pleased after interviews with him in which they have revealed nothing.
He said: “I always get frustrated when people come on to the show and manage to say absolutely nothing interesting for 20 minutes and then come off afterwards and say: ‘I think that went rather well, don’t you?’
“And I can remember a long time ago talking to Ed Miliband about this… I said: ‘You said absolutely nothing, there’s no single story out of that’. He said: ‘Yes, exactly.’
“You’ve just been in front of 2 million people, 1 million of whom or more might think about voting for you, and you give them no soundbite, no thought worth having, no new fresh phrase, never mind any policy. That’s an incredible waste of your time and my time, and everybody’s time.”
Asked by chair Charlie Beckett, of LSE, whether journalists were to blame for politicians being overcautious, Marr said: “Not really. I don’t think you can blame journalists for that.”
Marr added that the politicians who do take risks, and make bold statements – such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond – “get a big boost”.
“I think the idea that if you want to be a successful politician you say very little is being blown out,” he said.
Marr interviewing Cameron in 2010 (picture: Reuters)
“These things go through phases. In our trade we become too aggressive, we become sort of feral, partly because of our fury at a lack of answers, so we get more and more aggressive. Politicians note this and find ways blocking us, usually by obfuscating using dull language to get round this. So we get more aggressive still. So they obfuscate us some more. Nobody watches. Then you have to find a way out of that.
“I have never believed that the right approach to a political interview is to say to the interviewee, in effect: ‘You’re a scoundrel, you’re a liar, and I’m going to treat you like that.’
“The best I can do is to ask intelligent questions, keep eye contact, intelligent, sensible questions that the alert viewer would want to be asked. And if they’re not answered, ask them again. And if they’re not answered then, just make it clear to everybody that X or Y has not answered the question and move on.
“We don’t have to be this kind of really, really aggressive opposition all of the time.”
Speaking about newspapers, Marr praised the political journalism of The Times, The Guardian and “to a lesser extent these days, the Telegraph”, saying it was “the best… I can remember in my lifetime”.
“We have a very, very excellent core of old-fashioned political reporters,” Marr said. “Everyone said, you know, newspapers are dying, they’re going to disappear, there’s no money for proper reporting any more – I may have said that myself from time to time – [but] it’s not true. Certainly as far as the election is concerned at the moment.”
But Marr was more critical of the tabloid press, questioning the political influence the newspapers now have.
He praised the Mail titles, highlighting The Mail on Sunday’s front page about Tory candidate Afzal Amin from earlier this month, and The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh, a “formidable writer”.
“But, by and large, the big political stories come from the broadsheet reporters more than from anywhere else, I think.”
He added: “I’m afraid, I don’t think the tabloid newspapers have anything like the power they had 30 years ago, 20 years ago. When Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp, The Sun mattered beyond any other newspaper – even beyond the Mail. The Sun and the Mail together really did set the agenda. I don’t think that’s true anymore.”