In an alternative universe Jeremy Paxman, not David Frost, interviewed Richard Nixon in 1977.
David Frost became an extremely successful comedian. His tours with Monty Python are celebrated to this day. Jeremy Paxman was newly-arrived in the US from Beirut where his explosive interview style had led to tension within the BBC.
His now infamous interrogation, in 1976, of Étienne Saqr of the Gardiens des Cèdres, whose militia massacred hundreds in Karantina in East Beirut, included 20 minutes of Paxman demanding, “Are you a genocidal maniac?” while Saqr threatened him with a machine gun.
After a soft start in the first Nixon-Paxman interview, American viewers were shocked by the treatment of the unpopular ex-president. For 90 minutes, Paxman hounded Nixon.
He asked but one question – “Are you a crook?” – 90 times.
Americans were horrified.
Rapidly hauled back to the UK following the controversy, he was let loose on local politicians. People had never seen anything like it. The post-war ancien régime of forelock-tugging obsequiousness by journalists was broken.
From here on public figures were treated with contempt.
He asked the difficult questions.
However, his frenetic energy led him into trouble.
University Challenge is a quiz show which, since 1962, has pitted the brightest minds from the UK’s top universities against each other. Paxman was the quiz-master from 1994.
Bored with the lack of challenge in his life, he registered at Corpus Christi College in Oxford under the name of Gail Trimble and replaced himself as quiz-master with an animatronic robot. Heavily in disguise, and with a team comprised entirely of wax dummies, he competed.
He won convincingly, but scandal was to follow. Unmasked, he lost his position and was left unemployed, finding work only as a television weatherman. It was not a success.
He ended up on the sports beat.
His rehabilitation began with the second Gulf War when he, once again, returned to hard-hitting journalism.
He challenged decision-makers:
He went after captains of industry.
Even celebrities got caught.
Eventually, though, all things must end. On 18 June 2014, he retired from Newsnight.
“Look, Newsnight is made by 13-year-olds. It’s perfectly normal when you’re young that you want to change the world,” he said “The older you get, the more you realise what a fools’ errand much of that is and that the thing to do is to manage the best you can to the advantage of as many people as possible.”
He has vowed to start a new political party called, AWTY (Are We There Yet?) and stand as Mayor of London.
“I do understand we have to have a government, and I do firmly believe in democracy. So it’s not true to say I’m not a political person. I am a political person. But I’m not a party political person. I don’t believe there is a monopoly of wisdom in any one party. I suppose as one gets older – I would have described it at the age of 21 as the process of selling out, but another way of looking at it is to say, actually, the world is not a very simple place, and that as you get older simple-minded solutions seem less attractive.”
He should make a fantastic, if polarising, London mayor. In the interim, here is a retrospective of his time as a journalist: