That Famous Paxman Interview

This was originally posted on my old blog on 6 March 2017. It was for an assignment for the Media Discourse and Analysis module in my final year of undergraduate studies.

Media analysis can be extra interesting for me as an immigrant. I grew up and lived in a world far removed from the one I live in now. Famous names and faces can mean nothing to me. I often have little knowledge of issues, scandals and challenges that are part of the social memory here.

Yet even I had a vague recollection of seeing Jeremy Paxman’s (in?)famous interview with John Howard. Until I watched it again for a Media Discourse and Analysis assignment, I would not have associated those names with the memory. My task this week is to analyse this interview through the lens of what we learned in class. To begin, I watched the clip with a “clean slate” – I looked up nothing about the interview except the date on which it took place. I had no idea who Michael Howard is, what his role was at the time, which may help me to better focus on the techniques used by both interviewer and interviewee in this encounter.

Is the interviewer maintaining a stance of “formal neutrality”? Or can we see some form of bias?

Ideally, mediators (reporters, journalists) should maintain a stance of formal neutrality in an interview. This can be difficult, as your duty as interviewer is also to challenge the interviewee, a purpose often fulfilled by playing devil’s advocate. Of necessity, that can cast the interviewer as someone with an opposing point of view.

While Paxman meets this requirement, it becomes clear as the interview progresses that he “set the scene” with Howard at 1:40 in the clip. Paxman knew that he had a statement which contradicted Howard’s “party line”. Does this mean Paxman went into the interview with a preconceived bias? While he had a clear agenda, set by the acquisition of information which exposed a lie, Paxman’s position qualifies as formally neutral. Howard is trapped, but he is not trapped by Paxman “doing a Bill O’Reilly“, he is trapped by his own conduct.

Paxman also starts by giving Howard an opportunity to disrupt the narrative before confronting him with the statement contradicting what Howard had said to the House of Commons Select Committee. He first asks Howard if he had ever lied in a public statement, and while this was part of the trap being set for the interviewee, it was also an opportunity for Howard to present himself as no more than human. He makes a strong statement that he had never lied – the subsequent unfolding of the interview might have been less damaging if he had said: “None of us are immune from mistakes, but I strive in everything I say to be completely honest.” Next Paxman asks Howard if he wants to change anything from any public statement he has made about the matter on hand. Again, this is part of the trap, as Howard cements himself into a position, and is left no wiggle room. Yet at the same time, in the strictest sense it is a fair opportunity for Howard to lay down some kind of firebreak.

How are the questions being answered by the interviewee (regarding language being used, is it conversational)?

Conversationalisation has to do with the accent and delivery of a media text. In this context the word “text” means audio or video, as we cannot hear the voice of the encoder of the message when we read it. The question therefore refers to the way Howard speaks and the “lingo” he uses. Audiences’ decoding of a message is influenced by the accent and vernacular. Media personalities can deliberately cultivate a certain way of speaking so as to better connect with their audience.

Judging from Howard’s way of speaking it is clear he is either deliberately or inadvertently addressing a more educated audience. Consider his manner and speech in this more recent interview (from 2:04), in which he was addressing a very different audience:

Especially in answers or parts of answers where he likely prepared his response, he leaves out contractions, saying “did not” instead of “didn’t”, for instance. In many cases his grammar is odd and sounds forced, but looks right when written down:

“… the journalist who wrote the story in the Daily Mail, to which you have referred, has confirmed…” (0:20)

“…a decision which I had to take in the light of…” (1:00)

“There can have been few decisions that have been…” (1:56)

“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…” (2:04)

Has the interviewee answered the specific question that has been asked?

Howard answers the first two questions unambiguously.

Paxman asks the third at 0:36 – “Would you agree that such stories are cheap and nasty and bring shame on anyone who spreads them?” This time Howard doesn’t answer. Instead he subtly attacks Paxman’s reporting, referring to “an independent report, not mentioned in your introduction”, and implies that reporting on the issue at hand is frivolous.

Paxman asks another question (1:10), which Howard answers unambiguously, but misleadingly.

He then asks two questions which Howard answers unambiguously, before he confronts Howard with evidence of wrongdoing, to which Howard responds by making a number of no doubt true statements which dance around rather than answer the question at hand: had he threatened to instruct Derek Lewis to dismiss John Marriot? Howard again makes statements which are related to the issue but do not answer it. Paxman does not let him get away with it. At 4:12 he condenses the question to: “Did you threaten to overrule him?”

Howard repeats statements which are not an answer to the question, and Paxman famously repeats the simple question twelve times. Howard never answers the question.

What approach is the interviewee using, if any, to avoid providing an answer to a specific question?

Howard uses a few techniques:

  1. He answers a very specific and pedantic interpretation of a question.
  2. He answers, in essence, a different but similar question to the one asked.
  3. He tells the interviewer and the audience what he was and was not allowed to do – something related to the issue but not an answer to the question. In other words, he evades the question.

Is the interviewer allowing this to happen (violation) or are they pushing for an answer to a question?

Following Howard’s pedantic answer (about “bawling out”), Paxman pushes beyond Howard’s base for his denial. He does this in a very polite and civilised manner, so that it is possible to miss his effective “herding” of his interviewee in the direction needed.

Paxman points out that the question “Did you threaten to overrule him?” has not been answered at 5:44, and Howard goes as far as to say the question is something different from what Paxman asked. After this exchange, Paxman moves on to another question. Howard doesn’t answer the last three questions unambiguously, but Paxman allows his non-answers. This is likely because the purpose of the interview had been fulfilled with the famous string of evasions. The final questions seem to be aimed more at the audience than at Howard. His answers are likely irrelevant.

Can we see the use of language within the interview being influenced by the perceived social context of the ‘target audience’?

The interview took place on Newsnight, which is broadcast on weekday nights and specialises in news analysis. The programme’s time slot at the time was 10:30pm, and combined with the subject matter it is clear the target audience was adults with an interest in more than the summary of current events provided by the nightly news. This demographic may even today appreciate presenting language that is more formal and precise. In addition, the mature age group at the time will have grown up through the infancy of television, in which even entertainment programmes’ presentation was stiff and formal.

Howard also uses the passive voice a lot, which can be a deliberate effort to portray himself as a passive victim of circumstances. Instead of himself being the actor in the example from 2:04, for instance (“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…”), the decision is the actor, and pushed him into the current situation.