100 articles – ‘Paxman versus Howard’

20 April 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

‘Paxman versus Howard’ broadcast on the BBC’s Newsnight

In 1997, then-Home Secretary of Britain, Michael Howard, was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s current affairs show Newsnight. The interview primarily focussed on Howard’s possible intervention after Derek Lewis, then-Director General of the British Prison Service, had controversially sacked a prison governor.

The short interview has gone down in history mainly for the fact that Paxman asked the same question of Howard no fewer than 12 times (‘did you threaten to overrule him?’) with Howard giving evasive answers or trying to answer a different question. Howard repeatedly said he ‘gave his opinion’ on the matter and ignored the ‘threaten’ portion of the question. Eventually Paxman said ‘we’ll leave it there’ with a wry grin, before moving on to another matter.

Some might say that Paxman was overly relentless with his questioning – interrupting and speaking over Howard numerous times to ask the question again. But journalists should be mindful of the fact that persistence can be an intrinsic part of interviewing, particularly with slippery politicians.  Paxman’s doggedness may be abrasive, but it is also incisive and achieves results – even if the result might be somewhat unexpected.

In this case, the fact that there was no answer forthcoming from Howard was answer enough in itself.

Renee Tibbs is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is a previous editor of upstart.

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