Jeremy Paxman: the licence fee is an “absurd mechanism” – but we would not be better off without the BBC

The veteran broadcaster talks Trump, Newsnight, Brexit and the state of journalism

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Jeremy Paxman has called the BBC licence fee an “absurd mechanism” – months after the new BBC charter agreed with the government guaranteed its existence for at least the next 11 years. 

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Interviewed by John Humphrys at an Intelligence Squared event in London, the former Newsnight host predicted a “limited life” for the licence fee, adding: “It is an absurd mechanism because it is the only item of household furniture, the television, upon which a tax is levied and backed by force of law. That is an antediluvian mechanism that pre-dates computers; however, the question that people have to answer is would the world be better off without the BBC? My answer to that is unquestionably no. The world would not be better off.”

The veteran broadcaster went on to discuss alternative funding models, citing Netflix and Amazon’s subscription services as examples. “There are loads and loads of mechanisms – I just hope people are thinking seriously about it as I cannot see how much longer people will carry on paying a tax on a television.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with the Today host, Paxman – who fronted Channel 4’s EU referendum debate – also touched upon the media’s coverage of Brexit, commenting on recent accusations that the BBC failed in its commitment to act impartially.

“I think this question of impartiality is terribly difficult because it’s a slippery concept… The media do have a silly taste for sensation. I think the problem as far as the Remain camp goes in the Brexit debate was that the positive case for membership was never properly made. I think there’s an awful lot wrong with the European Union – I detest many of its manifestations – but the positive case for membership was never made. All we heard was a lot of dire warning about how our feet would drop off if we left the European Union. It was absurd.

“There is a positive case – it was not made but that it was not reflected in the media is not the media’s fault, really. If you went through a cross section of the media I think you’d find that editorially, there was a preponderance in favour of remaining so I don’t buy the argument that there was an institutional bias.

“The BBC had a rather simple-minded approach I think to the European referendum in that it thought that every time someone came on making one case they had to have some clown standing against them, whether they knew what they were talking about or not.”

Paxman was also grilled by Humphrys on his departure from Newsnight – did the BBC make an attempt to keep him? “I suppose they didn’t try particularly hard” – and the current state of journalism. 

To the latter, he admitted to being “bothered by the false glamour that attaches to much of the media now.” 

“Journalism is important but we should have a realistic view of its significance,” he said. “Of course I believe in free expression, of course I believe in holding people to account, but let us not imbue it with a false glamour because once you start doing that, it becomes buyable.”

Paxman also warned of the knock-on effect of the financial struggles currently facing the newspaper industry. 

“There’s a very big difficulty happening in our newspapers now where, because they’re so short staffed and short of money, they are printing an awful lot of stuff that frankly is nothing more than a press release. I was talking to someone not long ago who boasted about having her copy on the front page of a newspaper I will not name. This woman was a public relations executive. It’s happening increasingly.

“Provenance matters and the difficulty with the internet is that you can never be sure except by prolonged exposure precisely what axes are being ground and I think that’s the difficulty.”

He also went on to discuss his “discovery” that news, as we know it, “doesn’t matter”.

“Have you noticed how the six o’clock news is always half an hour long? Newsnight is always run across 48, 49 minutes. It’s always that length whatever has happened in the world, and there’s a fatuous urgency which is invested in every happening whether it’s big or small, and that seems to me to be diminishing to all of us in that we start to take unimportant things too seriously and the important things not seriously enough.

“My great discovery of the last ten years or so is that actually news doesn’t matter. It’s a rather shocking thing to me because I always believed and still do believe that a well-informed democracy is a healthy democracy, but I do think that there is something about the frenetic urgency, the faux seriousness, the staged piety that affects newscasters when they tell us the things about which we can do absolutely nothing and that bothers me.”

But addressing one topic that has dominated worldwide news throughout 2016, Paxman said he would “love” to quiz US presidential hopeful Donald Trump on whether he really thinks it’s smart not to pay taxes. “If you’re running to be leader of a state that requires people to pay taxes, how on earth can you claim it’s not smart to pay them?”

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Labelling democrat nominee Hillary Clinton a “dull candidate” and Trump a “clown”, he observed, “the media immediately came out and said Hillary had won [the first] debate. I wasn’t so sure that she did, actually. I think that Trump’s performance – he successfully painted her as a machine washable politician which in many ways she is and I think it will resonate with a number of people in America.”