I've long thought that the question of whether Jeremy Paxman's almost absurdly belligerent interviewing style serves - or is an irritant to - the democratic process is a bit like the question of whether it's a good thing that Prince Charles uses his privileged position to speak out on issues of political controversy. In other words, it all depends on whether you agree with the point he is making at any given moment. I'm sure there have been occasions when I've found myself cheering Paxman on - but equally there was one incident that made my blood boil like no other. During the 2001 election campaign, the then SNP leader John Swinney was invited onto Newsnight for what was billed as an 'interview', but what actually unfolded was little more than a prolonged Paxman sneer-fest. His introductory remarks were "OK, Mr. Swinney, you're on national TV now". He then spent almost the entirety of the exchange demanding to know why the SNP manifesto contained pledges that they could never implement, since they wouldn't be forming the UK government. But when you think about it, what was Paxman actually getting at there? That the SNP shouldn't have the temerity to stand candidates at all? Or that those candidates should stand without publishing a manifesto or telling anyone what their policies are? A line of attack that basically amounts to "justify your existence, not your policies" can scarcely be said to aid the democratic process. Naturally, Swinney as one of the most mild-mannered political leaders in recent history found the forbearance not to inform Paxman he was being an oaf and storm off, but I'm not quite sure how.
So how delicious to see Paxman try a similar job on Plaid Cymru last night and be made to look an utter fool for his troubles. Once again, there was a sneering introduction intended to undermine the credibility of the interviewee before he had even spoken a word - "I'm joined now by Eurfyl ap Gwilym, who's Deputy Chairman of the Principality Building Society, in which august position he's also Plaid Cymru's senior economics adviser". But, once underway, the exchange quickly spun completely out of Paxman's control. When he claimed that public expenditure in Wales was higher than in any region of England, Gwilym was able to point out that spending per head is actually higher in London, and with single-mindedness worthy of Paxman himself admirably refused to move off the issue until that point had been conceded. "Do your homework!" he repeatedly said, to Paxman's evident fury. The telling thing was that Paxman clearly started to twig at an early stage that he had probably got his facts wrong, but boneheadedly refused to simply acknowledge that, ultimately resorting to utterly risible bluster about how London wasn't really a region of England. And that, surely, is the Paxo problem in a nutshell - if his belligerence is to serve any real purpose it must be to break through the obfuscation of politicians, not to assist in his own obfuscation, or to shout down those who challenge him when he's clearly in the wrong.