“I really wish I hadn’t decided to ask this question.
“I love the BBC and I’m a big beneficiary from the BBC, but I have to say listening to your [Thompson’s] critique, I thought you were showing some sort of guilt about what the BBC website is doing to other commercially operated websites, you know, run by newspapers and you were trying to say the BBC might paddle it, that guilt, by sharing resources online (…) I understand it would be a very good way forward.
“I don’t quite know how it’s going to work. I wonder if the simple solution might well be to carve up the licence fee and give a slice of it to the Sun, some to the Daily Mail…”
Thompson answered, to paraphrase, that it probably wouldn’t work very well.
A little more fully: there are countries where they’ve tried that, said Thompson. And the problem is, he said, that if you’re not careful, the ‘subsidy you need’ gets a bit bigger every year; and secondly, as a public service broadcaster one would ‘begin losing the critical mass’ in terms of the organisation’s culture, calibre of the output and public accountability.
In the meantime, enjoy the clip at the end of this post: when Paxman dipped his toes into YouTube waters for Newsnight (which, incidentally, BBC director-general Mark Thompson later confessed to never having seen till that evening: “I had no idea – I’d missed that”).
So Journalism.co.uk asked Paxman: you’re a little sceptical about social and new media, then?
“It’s a joke [his YouTube video – see below]! One of the functions of journalism, seems to me, [is that] it sifts and analyses – and it’s great to have a lot of raw material, but someone still has to sift it to make sense of it,” he said.
There are occasions, for certain stories, he said, ‘when one spends a lot of time looking at blogs… comments… it’s just time wasted.’
“We haven’t yet developed a mechanism for synthesising what comes out – we’re currently at a stage where someone goes to a rally and writes down the comments of everybody there. That’s no way to report an event – it doesn’t tell you very much,” Paxman said.
“We still need journalists forming perception and analysis of what’s happening – that’s getting drowned out by this Babel-like cacophony. But we’re at a very early stage of development with it. I think there are new things going to happen.”
“You do it [give advice] with a certain knowledge that those who are determined won’t be put off anyway. But, I think, overall, the prospects in this trade are not good,” he told Journalism.co.uk.
“Wages are being cut – [there are] apparently respectable newspapers which actually survive on work experience people – and not paid. This is no good! When you’re 21 you don’t think about it. You’ve got to think about it: the longevity of it, [being able to] afford to put a roof over your head and feed your kids etc.
“It’s always been a young person’s trade I think, but it’s even more that now.
“I personally believe in it of course – I think it’s a really worthwhile activity. But it is, I think, the case that there are more immediately socially worthwhile things that you could do with your life. I just think these are strange circumstances.”
Tonight he steps up to get the first ever Charles Wheeler Award at Westminster University from his boss Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general. Paxo is now the worthy wearer of Wheeler’s Crown. Well deserved.
Charles loved words and using them. So does Paxman. Witness this week, Paxman calling Esther Rantzen a ‘retired television nabob’. Ouch.
It’s what good journalists do; we use words. Charles transformed any film which he reported. I’ve seen very so-so stories become very good watches when reported by Wheeler. Paxman, lest we forget now that he is in a warm studio, was the best film reporter of his generation. Look at some of the films from the Central American frontline 30 years ago. The man learned early.
Charles liked to cause mischief. All good hacks do. He was once heavily censured by the BBC bosses for being rude to royalty on tour. Did he care? Not a jot! Think Paxman and Blair: ‘Do you and President Bush pray together?’ and my all-time favourite to Shaun Woodward, the new MP for St Helens in deepest Lancashire: ‘Mr Woodward did your butler vote Labour?’ (Woodward is very rich and was parachuted to St Helens. He did have a butler).
Charles was less the master of the studio than Paxo has become. Charles always looked a mite uncomfortable, Paxo not. A caged animal waiting for its prey. It’s no wonder Gordon Brown refuses to be interviewed by him. Paxo takes Newsnight up a gear when he presents it.
Both are, to use that wonderful English word, ‘curmudgeonly’. So what? There are too many smiling faces on TV and too many autocuties. Curmudgeons find things out – even if they do not make huge numbers of friends. But then good hacks are loners.
For all of their similarities (and differences) who can begrudge Paxo the title of King of the TV Journalism jungle? Not me.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He produced last month’s Media Society Annual Award Dinner for Jeremy Paxman.
Yesterday the great and the good of British broadcasting and journalism gathered at Westminster Abbey to honour Sir Charles Wheeler ‘the reporters’ reporter’ who died, aged 85, last year.
Wheeler devoted 60 plus years to great journalism; we all have our personal and professional memories of him. Mine date back to 2004, when I was asked to produce the Media Society dinner at the Savoy Hotel to give him its award and honour him. How do you salute a God?
I’d grown up with his work from America and elsewhere, been a producer in the BBC where he was treated with huge respect, and seen and heard his work.
I can especially remember a ‘so-so’ story on Newsnight in the 1980s about cops beating up a black man in Notting Hill, which was everyday stuff then, unfortunately. It was transformed to a different plane by Wheeler reporting on it: all of a sudden it had ‘bottom’. Charles sprinkled journalistic experience and gold dust on all he touched. That ‘so-so’ became a significant story. Charles Wheeler was like that.
Back to the Savoy Dinner: Charles was modesty itself and happy to go along with whoever came along. Everybody but everybody I approached to speak readily agreed to do so: Helen Boaden, then controller of BBC Radio 4, said no problem; Steve Anderson, then controller for news and current affairs at ITV and a former Wheeler producer at Newsnight, was gagging to be on the cast list; so too the great Peter Taylor, who said he would be ‘honoured’ to be part of such an event. Charles and his work had that sort of influence with even the very best of our trade.
But the icing on the Savoy cake proved to be one Boris Johnson, then a barely known Tory MP, Spectator columnist and part-time clown. Boris is also Wheeler’s son-in-law, and his speech on the night was a tour de force. Scribbled on the back of a Savoy napkin, it had scores of hardened hacks in stitches.
Wheeler was much more measured and contrite when it was his turn: apologising to his many producers for giving them a hard time (the sign of a good reporter – one who in involved enough to get angry); radiating modesty and sheer professionalism at one and the same time. Charles Wheeler was like that – he cared about every single word and every single picture to the bitter end of the film that he was working on – and his life.
Never mind Westminster Abbey, Sir Charles Wheeler’s (Charlie Wheeler to all) work on tape and on screen is his epitaph. That will be with us all for a long, long time to come. Adieu ‘Reporters’ Reporter’. You probably have your notebook out, finding the great stories and telling them.