What on earth has gripped hold of television’s grand inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman? Perhaps his famous underpants have been pinching him too tightly, which might account for his grumpy mood.
Whatever the cause, he told a bunch of jabbering media monkeys at the Edinburgh Television Festival that people like him were the most egregiously discriminated against in the broadcast media.
These days, he said, being a white, middle-class man was ‘the worst thing you can be’.
And he added that he advised any man who expressed a wish to work in TV to ‘give up all hope’.
By any reckoning, it was an astonishing outburst. I have met Jeremy many times, but I had never fully appreciated the endless struggle against oppression which this poor man has fought to reap his meagre rewards from an institutionally biased industry (that’ll be about a million quid a year of licencepayers’ money, since you asked).
Now, though, it is clear—his name deserves to be written alongside other fearless campaigners for equality: Rosa Parkes, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jeremy Paxman.
I must confess, I laughed so hard when I read Jeremy’s cri de coeur that coffee shot out of my nose and all over the kitchen table.
He is a clever, likeable man and a fine interviewer, but he has seemed hell-bent, of late, in making himself appear quite ludicrous.
Writing furious letters to Marks & Spencer about his underpants seemed to have been an eccentric aberration but, as it turned out, it was only the start of a campaign of extraordinarily misplaced grumpiness.
Let’s be honest: the grinding misery of Paxman’s underprivileged background—Malvern College, Charterhouse, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge—has not proved a great impediment to him trousering the sort of salary that seems modest only if you are Jonathan Ross or David Beckham.
And indeed, when I joined the BBC’s Today programme back in 1988, almost all my colleagues were from precisely the same background as Jeremy; hell, they were probably all distantly related to Jeremy.
Sure, there were a few slightly strange-looking women around and, as far as I can remember, one almost-black face out of 50 members of staff (although plenty working up in the eighth floor canteen after midnight).
But, by and large, the staff on Today were polite, impeccably liberal, public-school-educated white men—and six of them had been educated at Eton.
Perhaps Jeremy is simply annoyed that the BBC is no longer quite so fabulously unrepresentative of the civilian population as was the case 20 years ago.
It took the corporation until 1999 to appoint its first female controller of a television channel (the unlamented Jane Root: not the best start, girls); and today some 70 per cent of the top jobs in the corporation are still held by nice, short-haired, middle-class white men in suits—the overwhelming majority of them public-school-educated.
The Director-General, Mark Thompson, is a white, middle-class male (Stonyhurst College and Merton College, Oxford) and so is his deputy, Mark Byford.
So too are the heads of television news, BBC Sport, technology and innovation, light entertainment—one could go on and on.
Are any of them black? Only if you look at them in late August when they’ve just returned from their Tuscan villa holidays.
Such black executives as there are at the BBC are more likely to be found behind the scenes, safely corralled in the various fatuous ‘equal opportunities’ departments, where they are charged by the BBC with the task of making sure the corporation toes the right line on issues deemed important to black and ethnic minority British people—stabbings, racial hatred, Islam, dance music and Africa.
The equal opps departments today have become the modern equivalent of the old eighth-floor canteen—a corporate ghetto—and the stuff they dole out isn’t much more palatable, either.
And this is where Paxo has a point, of sorts. The BBC has changed, but it has changed in precisely the sort of way you might expect from an organisation run by white, middle-class male liberals like Jeremy Paxman.
The positions of power are still largely held by men who went to Charterhouse or Eton, but they have imposed upon the corporation beneath them—and upon the viewing public—a cringing political correctness, buttressed by silly quotas and that evil oxymoron, positive discrimination.
And so your screens are full of ethnic minorities, busily running about all over the place—but very often the wrong ethnic minorities and usually only in minor roles.
Further, when blacks or Asians crop up in television dramas they are almost always the good guys, to counter ‘negative stereotyping’.
Your local BBC news programmes will have more ethnic minority reporters and presenters than you could shake a stick at, even if you live in an area that is almost exclusively white.
You will watch positive and uplifting reports about Africa on your BBC national news, and every vox pop on the big news stories of the day will include the comments of some slightly bewildered black person whom the news crews have spent most of the day trying to track down.
When Muslim terrorists fail to detonate a bomb at a British airport or outside a nightclub you will be told, authoritatively, by the white reporter that this attempt to kill people had nothing to do with Islam and that all Muslims are opposed to such action—without even a cursory attempt to justify this tendentious commentary.
On news reports about starvation in Africa you will be told that it is not remotely the fault of the African governments and the main report—about 100,000 dead people—will be immediately followed by a cheering story about the fortitude of one African family who have dug a well near their house, or bought a goat, or some such nonsense.
During reports about immigration you will always be told that this influx is a good thing; you will never be told that, for example, more than 80per cent of Somalian immigrants remain on welfare benefits and have no intention whatsoever of going home.
This patronising and plainly biased approach to reporting could emanate only from an organisation run by white, middle-class liberal people like Mr Paxman.
People who are magnificently out of touch. People who through some self-flagellating impulse have resorted to a classic case of over-compensation.
This point was made very eloquently recently by a nonexecutive director of the BBC and a former boss of the corporation’s Westminster coverage: there are too many black people on TV, Dr Samir Shah argued—and they are all doing the wrong things.
And the fault lies with the white middle-class men who constitute an unshifting hegemony within the upper echelons of the BBC.
Only a BBC white liberal could decide that the public ought to be watching a comedy programme full of black people—rather than a comedy programme that was very funny and happened to have black people in it—and then commission a white Scottish bloke to write it.
That’s what happened with The Crouches, the BBC1 ‘African-British’ comedy written by Rab C. Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison, which was put out of its misery after two series.
So Jeremy Paxman may have hit upon a small truth in his bizarre interview in Edinburgh.
The thing he didn’t seem to understand was that it is all down to people like him.