BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush held their final joint press conference at the White House this week. After some especially prickly questions from British reporters, Blair turned to Bush and said, you'd kind of forgotten what the British media were like, hadn't you?
But the man who best exemplifies the toughness of the British media wasn't even there. He is Jeremy Paxman, who has honed his relentless inquisitorial style as host of the BBC's leading current affairs program, Newsnight, for 17 years. Paxman joins us now, but before we let him speak, we'll let one of his most famous interviews speak for him. Here he questions former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, accused of illegally threatening the head of Britain's Prison Service, Derek Lewis. JEREMY PAXMAN: Did you threaten Derek Lewis? MICHAEL HOWARD: I was not entitled to instruct Derek Lewis and I did not instruct him. And – JEREMY PAXMAN: Did you threaten to overrule him? MICHAEL HOWARD: - the truth of the matter is that Mr. Marriott was not suspended. I did not - JEREMY PAXMAN: Did you threaten to overrule him? MICHAEL HOWARD: I did not overrule Derek Lewis. JEREMY PAXMAN: Did you threaten to overrule him? MICHAEL HOWARD: I took advice. BOB GARFIELD: Twelve times [LAUGHS] you asked him that question. JEREMY PAXMAN: And he never answered it. BOB GARFIELD: Now, is that the quintessential Jeremy Paxman? JEREMY PAXMAN: Oh, God. I'm not self-regarding enough to think anything is quintessentially me. So, I mean, I just think that it's a perfectly straightforward business, this interviewing lark. It is simply asking questions, and you rather arrogantly try to imagine what the reasonably intelligent viewer would like to see asked. And if you ask the question, it's absolutely incumbent upon you to get an answer.
As it happened, the next guest, who was Martin McGuinness of the IRA Sinn Fein, was in the studio and waiting to do an interview afterwards about something else. And he watched this and took it into his head to leave the studio. So the next [BOB LAUGHS] interview, the next interview he had already left. And they just said in my ear, well, I should keep this going for a while. And I thought, well, bloody hell, he hasn't answered the question. I'll carry on until he does answer it. BOB GARFIELD: Now, here in the U.S.A., in the White House briefing room, for example, we often cringe at the follow-up not asked. But there's a fine line between not taking no answer for an answer and badgering. How do you stay on the right side of that line? JEREMY PAXMAN: I wouldn't claim that I do stay on the right side of it. It's appropriate sometimes to badger people. The White House briefing room – I've seen some of those meetings with the press corps there. It's very, very easy for the powerful person simply to give some set of bromides in answer to the first question and then simply to pick somebody else and go there as a way of blunting the attack.
So unless all the reporters there agree what it is they wish to go on about and to seek, therefore, by a concerted attack from several sides, to get at the truth, it is not a very satisfactory way of finding anything out. BOB GARFIELD: I want to play for you a piece of tape from an interview you did with Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war. Actually it was done as a kind of town hall format. JEREMY PAXMAN: Does the fact that George Bush and you are both Christians make it easier for you to view these conflicts in terms of good and evil? TONY BLAIR: I don't think so, no. I think that whether you're a Christian or not a Christian you can try and perceive what is good and what is evil. JEREMY PAXMAN: You don't pray together, for example. TONY BLAIR: No, we don't pray together, Jeremy, no. JEREMY PAXMAN: Why'd you smile? TONY BLAIR: Because – why did you ask me the question? JEREMY PAXMAN: Because I'm trying to find out how you feel about it. I mean - [LAUGHTER] TONY BLAIR: Possibly. BOB GARFIELD: Possibly [LAUGHS], Prime Minister Blair said. And, frankly, I think he was totally on to you. You weren't trying to find out how he felt about it. You were trying to find out if Blair was some sort of religious nut dragging the country into war because of something he read in the Bible. No? JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, the words are yours. I mean, no. I consciously asked the question because I knew it would be a difficult thing for him to deal with. Now, we know that George Bush had presented the whole Iraq issue in these Manichean terms of good and evil, and I was curious to know whether Blair actually shared that view. So it was, I think, a legitimate question.
I mean, he was onto it straightaway. You're quite right. He knew that that is terrain that we don't go into in our politics, and that was why he looked and felt and, I thought, sounded awkward when asked that question. So Blair was right, and I was right, too. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So while I was interested in your interviewing techniques, I'm also deeply fascinated in your new book, On Royalty, the tour for which is what gave us the opportunity to have you in the studio to begin with. I want to ask you, why does Jeremy Paxman write a book about royalty in the U.K.? JEREMY PAXMAN: Because I had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. From the age of about 13 or 14, I thought that royalty was an antique, illogical, democratically indefensible, and I was really quite happy with that prejudice.
And then I just started asking myself, well, why on earth do we still have it? And I have to say in the course of writing that book, I came completely to reverse my view.
One of the many advantages of this antique system that we have of having a monarchy is that the expression of the state is not bound up in the political leadership of the state. In this country, you have both an elected president, who's just another fly-blown politician, but he is also the leader of the nation and the physical expression, the embodiment of the nation.
If you have a king or queen, that doesn't apply, so you can treat your politicians with slightly less reverence. I mean, it's a great institution. You should think about getting it back here. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yeah. We're going to pass on that. JEREMY PAXMAN: [LAUGHS] I thought you might. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Jeremy, thank you very much for joining us. JEREMY PAXMAN: [LAUGHS] It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Jeremy Paxman is the host of the BBC program Newsnight and author of several books, including the recently released On Royalty.