Media industry: Four important lessons from Jeremy Paxman’s last interview

Jeremy Paxman went unmasked in his last interview given to The Times magazine (24.09.2016). As one of Britain’s most popular and controversial journalists, Paxman, 66, has amassed various juicy anecdotes and has led “war-gaming” interviews with the most influential public figures for the last decade on Newsnight for the BBC.

Besides the very personal statements he makes, unleashing about his strained relationship with his father, Paxman makes some audacious remarks on an industry he has worked for for almost 40 years. From the start, the young BBC trainee has been adamant about his role and journalism’s ideal. He has remained objective, as a genuine journalist, about what surrounds him.

Here are the four points that we can learn from his latest interview:

  • “It’s my job to dig”.

Journalism is all about “digging”, investigating, checking facts and telling stories. Paxman reminds us that a true journalist isn’t content with superficial gossip or given facts. Paxman is a journalistic model since his perception of news is to help in the existential crisis journalism is currently enduring. Indeed, a true journalist must dig more than ever before according to Eric Scherer and his “augmentated journalism” theory. His/her role only sees irrelevancy in today’s chaotic hyper-connected and over-informed society only if fact-checking and thorough investigations prevails.

  • In his memoir, Paxman expresses regrets about his crueller questions to Gordon Brown (”Why does no one like you?”) and asking Charles Kennedy, “Why does everyone say of you, ‘I hope he’s sober’?” He believes his famous monstering of hapless junior treasury minister Chloe Smith was needed to bring the government to account, but asking, “Are you incompetent?” was “unanswerable and unkind”.

A paradoxical idea arises here.

Paxman’s popularity could be grounded on the simple premise that he comes across as a relatively blunt, straightforward and brutally direct character. His image is colourful and attractive for the masses as he gives a sense of authenticity to an industry enduring a confidence crisis .

 Although he now seems to express regret, it has to be reminded that journalists’ role is intrinsequely linked to democracy. In saying so, it could be argued that Paxman’s purpose is first and foremost to embody the citizen’s voice. In this way, it could be added that Paxman’s controversial style could reflect a fringe of British agora’s voice, hence accounting for his important popularity.

  • The media, he says, can only accommodate one idea of a person. “I know that I will always be Mr Rude or whatever”.

Sad but true: a good key message in PR is a SIMPLE message. Putting forward a succinct and concise message is the most effective way to put a message across in the media industry and elsewhere. A simple message is easy to remember because it tells a story and ensures consistency (regarding a person, a situation, an organisation).

  • At times he sounds highhanded, especially when discussing peers. Newsreaders, Jon Snow aside, are failed actors, not proper journalists. […] “My great discovery in the last past year is that news doesn’t really matter”.

Paxman’s comment obvious doesn’t refer to the whole of the media industry, but his view on this matter is shared by many supporting the Postmodern stances around the media spectacle (infotainment) and the Simulacra theories.

Paxman’s view directly relates to Baudrillard’s investigation revolving around the impact that an image-saturated society can have on the process of representation of the real and creation of meaning. He argued that given that truth and reality are mediated by various mediums of representation, then it would have become almost impossible to distinguish the true from the false, the original from the copied. Likewise, Paxman’s comment could embody Debord’s early reflection on “spectacle” in society, in other words, on our world of mere representations, in which journalists are not journalists anymore, but representations of journalists.

Despite apparent simple statements, Paxman’s discourse remains highly relevant while contineously contributing to contempory debates on the media in society.

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Is objectivity actually dangerous for the future of journalism?

The End of Newspapers and The Future of Information. That is the book I took on holiday with me last month in which Bernard Poulet (yes, he is French) puts forward an interesting point at the beginning of the book directly questioning the role objectivity in journalism.

Coming from a French background and having followed a three-year Journalism course, it is a well-known fact at home that a good journalist must be an objectivity gate-keeper. Fairness, disinterestedness and factuality are just some of the noble qualities that are necessary for journalistic objectivity. Non-partisanship seems to provide strong credit to the media industry and to audiences. This is also valuable for other societies than France. Modern literature seems to have emphasised the importance of objectivity in the U.S. as David T.Z. Mindich discusses “how objectivity came to define American Journalism”.  Globally, factuality seems to be the key.

The Washington Post helped redefining journalism’s role

At the same time, several recent studies investigating journalism’s image in France reveal the poor opinion French people have towards the “Fourth power”. Poulet explains that for the last two decades, credibility has sharply dropped, resulting in a vertiginous drop in newspaper sales. He further notes that it is in the 1980’s that audiences paradoxically started to question journalists’ credibility as media professionals bore new neutrality standards. This period coincides with the Washington Post’s revelations on the Watergate scandal, setting up a new example of journalism in schools and universities. Importantly, Poulet ascertains that it is this new objective journalism that contributed to trust and sales issues in the print media industry.

Indeed, the argument being made about the French audiences is about readers sharing and believing in their newspapers’ stances. This phenomenon was particularly important between the two World Wars and after 1945. Newspapers embodied different ideologies and readers created a real bond with them, as a form of ‘activist commitment’.

 “Circle of Reason”

Conversely, today’s journalism seems to have installed some kind of distance between journalists and readers in the name of objectivity. Hence, the journalists’ role would be limited to telling their ‘own’ version of reality about an event, a public figure or a phenomenon Poulet states. In this way, he further argues that this objectivity has endorsed a real moral role, sometimes to autonomously participate in political debate. Trust issues within the media could then be explained as readers struggle with journalists’ “pretention” or “arrogance” to relate their own views of objectivity. This phenomenon has been described by Alain Minc as the “circle of Reason” (“le cercle de la raison”). Minc’s analysis takes into account the journalists’ lecturing role towards society. As a result, media professionals would establish what is of “reason” and everything that does not belong to this “circle of reason” would be nonsense.

As journalists have lost touch with readers and become so didactic that they are resented by their own audiences, the media has been associated with the establishment and the elite. In this instance, Poulet refers to the well-know national newspaper Le Monde. During the European Constitution referendum in 2005, the title placed itself as a genuine power institution, with the aim to set up the society’s new values, not on behalf of personal commitment, but on behalf of objectivity. While Le Monde expressed favourable views for the establishment of a Constitution for Europe, results demonstrated a clear refusal on the ratification of the treaty.

In sum, according to Poulet’s original stance, it would be by defining journalism as the most potent power in society that media professionals would have endangered themselves. The media print is at the heart of this lost of trust according to him, and it is now being expanded to other areas in the industry. To show the magnitude of this, he further takes the example of the activist press, which dramatically declined over the years in France, with the depletion of major titles such as L’Humanité, Combat and Le Populaire.

Facing its biggest challenge ever in France and elsewhere, media professionals have been in the urgent need to reinvent themselves in the hope of capturing audiences and regaining trust, particularly within the print media. The role of objectivity in the news is still at the heart of heated debates considering journalism’s salient role in democracy. Nonetheless, elements of answers have been put forward, and it seems that engaging and understanding audiences have never been that important for the survival of the traditional media.

 

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