Foreign Secretary David Miliband is accused by BBC’s Jeremy Paxman of showing him insufficient respect. We ask whether such bullying behaviour is acceptable, and whether Gordon Brown should immediate relieve Milband of all formal duties, pending a full enquiry into the matter
Late last night, I witnessed an unprecedented and unprovoked verbal attack on a BBC employee. It took place in a near-deserted conference hall at Bournemouth. The aggressor was the young and newly-appointed Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. His victim was the aging public servant Jeremy Paxman, who has suffered similar attacks down the years, while carrying out his duties as a distinguished political interviewer. It was typical that Paxman was disgracefully portrayed as a gruesome and sneering figure in the infamous Spitting Image show.
Mr Paxman was at a grave disadvantage during the exchange. He had courageously left the relatively secure location on the Newsnight studio, and entered a dangerously open space for the interview.
The aggressive young politician, clearly looking for trouble, had taken up an arrogant and insouciant posture, on a plastic chair. His interviewer, handicapped by the various bits of equipment required for him to carry out his duties, had been placed in a relatively servile position. This would have been evident to any observer of Celebrity Big Brother body language.
At one stage, Miliband’s distainful manner got through to his innocent victim. ‘Don’t patronize me’, Mr Paxman cried in despair. But his plea for mercy was too late. Quite clearly, he had been bullied into submission.
Later in the interview he could be seen staring into space. Maybe, in his prime, his posture could be interpreted as part of a well-known strategy to unsettle an arrogant interviewee. But that was then. Yesterday it looked more as if there was not a lot going on between those glazed eyes. The brutal attack on him had scored a technical knockout. Outrageous. In future, will Jeremy be able to operate in quite the same much-admired fashion that had earned him such celebrity status?
Perhaps Mr Miliband was still over-adrenalized from the heady experience of making his speech to Conference. Clearly he was spoiling for a fight. [How far away, I thought, from the graceful and courteous way that Douglas Hurd would fulfil his duties as Foreign Secretary, in the long-gone days of Margaret Thatcher’s governance. However robustly he would be pressed on behalf of the people, Mr Hurd always respected the fact that the interviewer was only doing his or her duty].
How different, I further mused, from the graceful exchange between Mr Paxman in his younger days, when taking on the guileful Home Secretary Michael Howard. The polite and insistent repetition of the same question by Mr Paxman. The polite refusal to answer it by Mr Howard. The basic move repeated in a seemingly unending exchange. But that was also a long time ago.
We are living in times when politicians may even see political advantage in dissing public servants.
An apology is called for
This is of some interest to readers of this blog. I like to think of us as a community concerned about leadership behaviours. I suggest that the cruel behaviour of Mr Miliband requires a firm leadership response.
In the interests of the nation, Mr Brown should insist that Mr Miliband should apologize to Mr Paxman and the BBC and promise to reform his ways and treat much-loved national icons with appropriate respect.
More, I call for a public enquiry to see whether our much-loved national icons require additional protection against violent behaviours of interviewees.
Something must be done before careers come to a premature end. Foreign Secretaries come and go. But there’s only one Jeremy Paxman. Surely he can be permitted to continue in the sunset years of his career, without vicious bullying from the supporting cast of actors?