LONDON — Jeremy Paxman, British television’s toughest public affairs interviewer, was one interrogator too many for Henry Kissinger.
Hosting the BBC Radio Four show “Start the Week,” Paxman infuriated the former U.S. Secretary of State in 1999 by asking if he felt ashamed to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The confrontational gambit, accompanied by a facial expression verging on the contemptuous, is Paxman’s stock-in-trade.
So is the U.S. ready for the ferocious Paxman, who will front a new show for BBC America beginning in the fall?
The BBC news anchor is reported to have once said of his interviewing technique: “I am always asking myself ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ ”
Pols have left the studio in despair at being caught on the rough end of Paxman’s tongue.
At least one walked out midway through an encounter. And Paxman famously once asked then-government minister Michael Howard the same question 14 times in an attempt to elicit a straight answer.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, inevitably, has suffered from the Paxman treatment. In a special program, when Blair made his case for invading Iraq, the interviewer asked if he and President Bush “prayed together” to which a visibly annoyed Blair replied: “No, Jeremy … we don’t pray together.”
BBC America topper Garth Ancier is confident the U.S. public will warm to the anchor.
“Jeremy Paxman is the sort of person that Americans will just eat up,” he told the Financial Times.
Not everyone agrees.
“I think Jeremy’s discourteousness might throw Americans,” says Stewart Purvis, ex-CEO of Independent Television News who is now professor of television at London’s City U.
“They are used to tough, firm interviewers, but the Americans are a deeply polite people,” he says. “Jeremy’s persistence and his facial expressions, which are a running commentary on his feelings towards his interviewee, will come as something of a surprise to U.S. audiences.”
Indeed, he didn’t connect with the aud during a recent appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
In Blighty, Paxman, 57, is best known as the main anchor on BBC2’s nightly public affairs show, “Newsnight.” He is the show’s longest-serving presenter having worked on it since 1989.
According to his own biography on the BBC website, the Cambridge-educated Paxman began his broadcasting career “making tea on Radio Brighton.”
If this sounds like a soft option, his next three years were spent covering the bloody civil strife in Northern Ireland.
Subsequently, Paxman worked as a BBC reporter for high-profile public affairs shows and traveled in Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Mideast.
By the time he agreed to accept the less high-pressure job of presenting quiz show “University Challenge” in 1994 (he still sits in the quizmaster’s chair) Paxman’s rep as a ferocious interrogator was secure.
Surprisingly, Paxman has agreed to give the flagship MacTaggart lecture at August’s Intl. Edinburgh Television Festival, generally given by a webhead. Last year’s lecturer was outgoing ITV CEO Charles Allen.
Getting Paxman to do the MacTaggart is an exciting prospect — on paper.
“I hope Jeremy will be brave enough to take on his bosses because the timing of the lecture coincides with the introduction of job cuts at the BBC, which is likely to see many of Jeremy’s colleagues made redundant,” Purvis says.