Paxman vs Philosophy

Lorna Finlayson analyses Paxman's interview technique.

One of the reasons for the current rock-bottom rates of trust in politicians is their famed inability to give straight answers. In the standard format, a journalist asks a question, and the politician responds with a stock phrase (“Let me be absolutely clear”, or “Well the thing is, Andrew”) followed by an at best tangentially relevant statement, which may or may not be true or even verifiable. The aim of the game is to steer far enough away from the question to avoid answering it, but not so far away that you stand out as being noticeably shiftier or more vacuous than your fellow players. Falling into the second of these traps is actually quite difficult: the bar has been set pretty high. In any case, most of your audience will have switched off (literally or figuratively) by then as, let’s face it, listening to someone not answering a question about tax rates is not exactly edge-of-the-seat stuff. Theresa May managed nevertheless to tumble into that trap last week as she fielded questions by a reporter from the Plymouth Herald. But as that episode showed, you need to take non-answering to quite an advanced level in order to attract attention to yourself.

By convention, the great nemesis of the shifty politician is Jeremy ‘Paxo’ Paxman. While more timid journalists wait for the non-answer to unfold, before moving on or perhaps rephrasing the original question, Paxman’s famous approach is to bark the same words over and over at the hapless interviewee in tones of ever greater exasperation. While this approach generally fares no better than the standard one in terms of getting an answer to the question, at its best it can function as a vivid performative demonstration of the politician’s shiftiness. The message communicated: this person is hiding something.

This bullish questioning technique, aside from snorting at students who don't know their Latin, is Paxo’s calling card. Some questions, however, are better than others – otherwise, there would be no such thing as the art of the interview. The subject I teach, philosophy, has an unusual fixation with bad questions and with determining what makes them bad. There are questions with false presuppositions (the favourite example, unfortunately, is ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’). There are false dichotomies or choices, where an either/or question falsely purports to exhaust the logical possibilities (‘Are you with us or are you with the terrorists?’). And there are questions or statements in which some crucial element is ambiguous or undefined (as in Groucho Marx’s claim to have shot an elephant in his pyjamas). As the recent televised debate ‘May v. Corbyn’ showed the quality of Paxo’s questions to have fallen to a new low, maybe he is in need of some assistance.

Case 1: “Is that morally right?”

Paxo asked this question six times without quite saying what the ‘that’ referred to. One question is whether the renewal of Trident is a ‘morally right’ policy tout court (Corbyn is presumably committed to answering in the negative). Whether it is right to back a manifesto which includes a commitment to the renewal of Trident, however, is a different question. How we answer it depends on our estimation of the available options. Even if we judge that it would have been open to Corbyn not to pledge to renew Trident, it is possible to take the view – as Corbyn himself seemed to in the interview – that respect for party process should take precedence. Thus it is possible to say both that renewing Trident is the wrong policy and that it is right to commit to (and, if elected, ultimately to enact) that policy. Philosophers occasionally discuss this under the heading of the ‘paradox of democracy’, puzzling over how we can both endorse and oppose the same thing at the same time. It’s quite a general problem, applying in principle to anything that comes out of a democratic or otherwise authoritative process. And needless to say, it hasn’t stopped anyone from being a democrat (or, for that matter, an opponent of nuclear weapons).

Case 2: “But you don’t believe in it, do you?”

Asked three times. Much the same story as above, but this time about the monarchy: Corbyn is against it; yet strangely enough, dethroning the Queen does not appear in the manifesto (Corbyn: ‘because we’re not going to do it’).

Paxman’s underlying point, in both this case and the case of Trident, seems to be that Corbyn is an ineffectual leader because he has failed to dictate the contents of his own party’s manifesto: things he doesn’t believe in are in it, and things he does believe in are not there. This weakness of this line of attack, of course, is that no leader who is not a dictator ever has a programme which exactly matches every one of his or her personal convictions (hence Corbyn’s eventual response: “I am not a dictator.”). As if trying to distract from the weakness of this central charge, Paxman resorts to bolder charges of hypocrisy or self-contradiction – charges which crumble as soon as their fundamental ambiguity is exposed. But there is always room to stoop lower. In this case, Paxo returns us to playground: “You don’t like [the Queen], do you?” If this is the thinking woman’s crumpet, you have to wonder, at this point, what exactly she’s thinking.

Case 3: the imaginary terrorist

Imagine you are Prime Minister. Your Chief Constable of the Defence Staff comes to you and says, “We have eyes on a man in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan who is plotting a bombing campaign in Britain. You have 20 minutes to make up your mind as to whether we take him out with a drone strike.” What do you do?

Philosophers sometimes consider a similar thought experiment called the ‘ticking bomb’. The idea is to put pressure on the intuition that torture is always, absolutely wrong. You have to imagine that by torturing crucial information out of a suspect – and there is no other way – you can save thousands of innocent people. You’re not allowed to ask how this situation came about, or how it could have been averted before it got to this stage, and you’re not allowed to look for other options that might have been missed in the set-up of the question, as it is simply stipulated (a philosopher’s euphemism for a kind of intellectual coercion: “Just assume…”) that there are no other options than mass death or the aversion of mass death through torture.

Such thought experiments can occasionally be useful, but more often they make for bad philosophy. The ‘pure moral intuitions’ they purport to isolate and expose often turn out not to be so pure after all, but have been shown to be responsive to morally irrelevant variations in the set-up of the imaginary scenario. In the context of politics, they also tend to obscure the very factors that are of the most importance. When considering our ‘security’, for example, it is far more significant to ask what might avoid a situation of nuclear confrontation – a situation in which we would probably all be doomed anyway – than it is to ask who would be prepared to push the ‘red button’ first. To fixate on that question is like grilling a prospective babysitter over what she would do in a situation where your child was strapped onto a train track, and someone else’s twins were strapped to an adjacent track… (thanks, philosophy, for this example too). You could do that, or you could look for the babysitter least likely to let your child play on the railway tracks with psychotic philosophers on the loose. To return to Paxman’s imaginary drone strike, what are obscured are precisely the factors which would inform the decision about what to do: ‘the circumstances, the evidence, and what has happened around… and also’, said crazy pacifist Corbyn, ‘what the effect would be on innocent civilians.’

Case 4: friends and tragedies

A basic insight of philosophy of language is that meaning is sensitive to context. You can also exploit ambiguities in language to produce logical traps. A popular joke – don’t expect philosophers’ jokes to be very funny – comes in the form of the following syllogism: ‘Nothing is better than perfect happiness. A cheese sandwich is better than nothing. Thus, a cheese sandwich is better than perfect happiness.’ (I warned you.)

Towards the end of his interview, Paxman revisited the well-aired theme of Corbyn as terrorist sympathiser, the evidence being that he has reportedly described Hamas as ‘friends’ and the death of Osama Bin Laden as a ‘tragedy’. Corbyn responded by supplying for the umpteenth time the context which these anecdotes deliberately omit: “It was an inclusive piece of language in order to get a meeting going. I do not agree with them, I do not support them, but at the end of the day, there has to be a process...” “No!” Paxman interrupted, “They’re your friends!” Well, that’s him told. Taking a leaf out of Paxo’s book, we must now remember to attack as Corbyn-sympathisers those Tory MPs who have repeatedly referred to him as a ‘right honourable gentleman’ – including our own Prime Minister Theresa May, who once used the phrase while congratulating Corbyn on the birth of his non-existent granddaughter (that’s how much she loves him).

Now it is possible that I have been uncharitable to Paxo. Perhaps he is so clever that he has gone right through stupid and out the other side. Certainly, he managed to construct a number of heffalump traps for Corbyn to blunder into. Take the issue of the morality of Trident. If Corbyn had given a ‘straight answer’ to the question, he would have been in trouble: ‘yes’ would have been pounced upon as proof of a u-turn on nuclear weapons (“CORBYN ADMITS THAT IT IS ‘MORALLY RIGHT’ TO RENEW TRIDENT”); if he had answered ‘no’, it would have been proof of moral hypocrisy (“CORBYN ADMITS HIS OWN MANIFESTO IS IMMORAL”). Even if Corbyn had fallen for it, it wouldn’t have made for very responsible journalism on Paxman’s part, so much as some cheap debating society point-scoring. But in any case, he didn’t, but stood like Buridon’s ass between two ostentatiously flaming piles of hay, patiently explaining the obvious.

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Lorna Finlayson is lecturer in philosophy at the University of Essex. Her books include The Political is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Philosophy and An Introduction to Feminism.