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Paxman bites at TV execs’ failure

Veteran BBC anchor decries recent scandals

EDINBURGH — British TV attack dog Jeremy Paxman, more famous for mauling politicians, has turned his teeth on Blighty’s TV toppers, saying they suffer from “a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve” amid declining standards.

The vet BBC anchor, who is headed Stateside to front BBC America news show “Paxman” in the fall, delivered a damning indictment of the state of TV in the flagship MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival before an audience of his peers Friday.

Paxman said “a manifesto, a statement of belief” was required to restore public trust in TV following a succession of scandals and challenged execs to ask searching questions about the medium’s purpose.

He singled out the recent furor over rigged phone-in quizzes on TV shows as “contemptible” and wondered why no one had been prosecuted.

“I know people who worked on (quiz channel) ITV Play who told me for the best part of a year before the scandal how bothered they were by what was happening,” he said. “Whoever was responsible should be sacked.”

It was no good blaming, as some had done, inexperienced staff, he said. Industry leaders needed to examine their conscience and their motivation.

Referring to the controversy over faked footage in the RDF Media documentary commissioned by the BBC, “A Year in the Life of the Queen,” Paxman said, “It demonstrates the changing imperatives, the variety of operators, the confused lines of accountability, the fact that money intrudes at every stage.”

He added: “To put it simply, people at the top are less concerned with content and a lot more concerned with bottom lines. There are too many people in this industry whose answer to the question, ‘What is television for?’ is to say ‘To make money.’ ”

Clearly implicating his own BBC bosses in his withering attack, Paxman said by constantly attempting to second-guess what audiences wanted, web heads risked losing viewers’ respect.

News shows, too, were being affected by the cost-cutting culture. “The question is no longer, ‘What can we do?’ It’s ‘What can we afford?’ ” he said.

Describing a lot of TV news reporting as “vacuous,” Paxman said news and public affairs programmers needed to rediscover their sense of purpose.

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