Personality journalism started with Paxman. It’s pernicious

‘When I was at the BBC, the cliché was that we left our politics at the door. It appeared not to need saying that other aspects of your personal identity should also be left at the door’

Samir Shah

The rot set in with Jeremy Paxman. Well, there is a case to be made that Sir Robin Day, with his bow-tie and abrasive manner, was the original “personality” journalist. But Sir Robin’s game-changing contribution to the art of the political interview cannot be gainsaid. Paxman’s legacy, though, is another matter.

In 1997, Paxman won the prestigious Royal Television Society’s award for Interview of the Year for his interrogation of Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary. Paxman questioned Howard relentlessly on whether he had threatened to overrule his prisons chief. Paxman asked the same question 12 times and Howard stonewalled 12 times.

I was running the BBC’s political department at Millbank then. I did wonder why an interview that did little to inform its audience had won. The answer was the same: it was compelling, riveting, “theatre”. Watch Howard squirm under Paxman’s grilling. There may have been no light shed on the issue being discussed but feel the heat—Paxman’s sizzling performance was as dazzling as the sun.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Paxman knowingly indulged in theatrics. Indeed, he tells me that to calm the fuss, he spread the rumour that the repetitious questioning was because he was filling time, the next interview having fallen through. But the industry decided anyway to anoint him the Sun King of broadcast journalism and a star was born. This imprimatur sowed the seeds of approval for a new kind of journalism: personality journalism, in which what matters is the performance and not the substance. 

Today, this seed has grown into broadcast journalism’s own Japanese knotweed. You see it everywhere, from the overuse of adjectives to add “colour” to a reporter’s story to making the most of your regional accent. The reporter is no longer simply a vessel for the delivery of news but a character, someone with a hinterland. Flesh and blood. A personality, no less.

It’s instructive to view the recent Naga Saga in this context. Naga Munchetty (pictured), a BBC Breakfast presenter, was encouraged to make a personal observation about a tweet by Donald Trump. And she did. Naga stepped away from her normal impartiality, reached into herself, and came up with a remark based on her “identity”.   

The response to this story has added another dimension to the rise of “personality” journalism. Identity advocates, supportive of Naga’s remarks, have challenged the value of long-held notions of impartiality. In the language of this world “you bring your whole self to work”. You absolutely do not hang up your identity at the door but draw upon it as you go about your daily business. 

Stewart Butterfield, the CEO and co-founder of Slack, an organisation committed to this new approach to workplace life, says “We believe there is a widespread feeling that people are meant to check a lot of stuff at the door when they arrive at work”.

Well, quite. When I was at the BBC, the cliché was that we left our politics at the door. It appeared not to need saying that other aspects of your personal identity should also be left at the door. Complying with BBC rules on impartiality meant that your personal attributes were irrelevant. If you said “x”, the fact that you were black, white, brown, female, male, working class, LGBT, public-school educated or comprehensive simply didn’t matter and shouldn’t be apparent to the viewer or listener.

This was a version of the philosopher Joseph Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance”. In a thought experiment, Rawls asked if you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like? But first imagine, said Rawls, yourself behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you knew nothing of yourself. Rawls argued that our opinions are informed by our own experiences. We are shaped by our race, gender, class, education, appearance, sexuality, career, family, and so on. And since you would not know where you would find yourself in this new world, the resulting society would be a fair one. Or an impartial one, if you reworked this example back to the matter in hand.

The “bring your whole self to work” movement does the opposite of Rawls’ veil. It invites your personality, upbringing and character to inform your journalism. Indeed, Mike Robbins has written a book on this, called Bring Your Whole Self to Work. He argues that if we don’t do this, “we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the ‘right’ thing”. You can see in that observation the connection this idea has to attempts to make the workplace more inclusive and more open to diversity. Little wonder it is gaining such traction.

While I think it’s a jolly good thing that the working environment should be a more inclusive and diverse place, I have a serious problem with this argument. If it is now OK for Naga Munchetty to say things about Donald Trump because she knows what it is to be a victim of racist abuse, then all sorts of experiences should be allowed to inform what you can and can’t say. Does having gone to a state school allow a reporter to have a view on abolishing private schools? Or, having gone to a grammar school, allow you a privileged position on their merits or demerits? This is a road down which we should not travel. 

Personality journalism, when confined to media figures putting on a performance to create theatre rather than shed light, was a regrettable, but not fatal, trend. But harnessed to the whole-self working argument, it has become a genuine threat to be resisted. Yes, the “real” you can now shine brightly in the workplace. Stories can be filtered through the lens of your personal hinterland. And the prospect of becoming a personality has never been brighter.   

The prospects for impartial journalism, however, are less bright. The rise of personality journalism is shredding Rawls’ veil. Be in no doubt that this could spell the end of impartiality as we have understood it. And this at a time when the need for dispassionate, disinterested, independent and impartial journalism is  greater than ever before.

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