Newsnight should always be an uncomfortable experience for someone, but since Jeremy Paxman left the show last year, that someone has all too frequently been his replacement, Evan Davis. In Paxman’s era the show was gladiatorial; we watched it as much for the schadenfreude of seeing his tongue tied victims squirm as we did to be informed. There were of course critics who thought that Paxman’s aggression derailed reasoned discussion, but they were missing the point of Newsnight, a show which always will be more fraught than other debate programs no matter who presents it. Newsnight always will be the most nerve-wracking show on TV for a politician to be invited onto, because it is on every weeknight, meaning that guests can be interrogated on issues their spin doctors have had almost no time to address. Paxman was exactly the right man for this format.
The typical interviewer’s reflex action is to begin with a rather long and cushy introduction, telling the interviewee about themselves, praising their hard work and their successful career. But Paxman knew this kind of introduction wastes time and gives the interviewee the upper hand; he knew the value of concision. He began his grilling of Ed Miliband, one of the cruellest of his career, by asking the would-be Prime Minister “Is Britain full?” This question was brilliant because even though its meaning was perfectly clear, its terseness took Miliband aback, provoking his asinine response, “As in immigration?” by which time the debate was essentially lost before it had begun.
Evan Davis, by contrast, has a talent for stumbling around in search of an opening gambit for minutes before actually beginning his belated, half-hearted attack. Take his interview with Russell Brand for instance – he began it by pointing at Brand’s new book and saying: “It’s a very interesting book and there’s a lot in it and we’ve got a lot to talk about, haven’t we?” While Davis was spending too long saying nothing Brand was already cutting across him, and this was how the next fifteen painful minutes continued. What was especially shocking to any fan of Paxman’s was the bodily contact Brand made with Davis – can you imagine anyone patting Paxman’s thigh mid question?
But Davis can also hammer at a point when he wants to – it’s just unfortunate that the point rarely happens to be the right one. In his appalling interview with Stephen Fry for instance, he persisted in comparing Fry’s destructive, but only self-destructive, cocaine habit to Jimmy Savile’s monstrous crimes. Fry had the look of a high school politics teacher enduring the ramblings of the largest ego in his class.
Oscar Wilde’s definition of a gentleman – someone who is only rude when he means to be – is also an essential quality in the interviewer. There are few faster ways of destroying your public and personal credibility than accidentally insulting your interviewee, but this is what Davis managed to do about once every minute in his interview with Fry. At one point he even asked him to admit he’s not a very good actor. The result of all of which is, Newsnight is still brimming with schadenfreude, but it’s no longer the guests we’re laughing at.