Jeremy Paxman's retirement: The Bible has many things to say about how we speak

Published 10 May 2014  |  
Jeremy Paxman has announced his retirement from Newsnight

Plaudits have come in thick and fast for BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman since he announced his retirement.

The veteran Newsnight presenter has revealed he is stepping down after 25 years as one of Britain's most high-profile political interviewers.

Unsurprisingly, BBC bosses have heaped praise on Paxman. Director General Tony Hall spoke of his "rare and dazzling talent," while James Harding, editor of BBC News, said "audiences will always be in his debt".

Many others have offered similar acclamation. In The Independent, Simon Kelner lamented: "How we'll miss him." And Andrew Billen in The Times described his "favourite Paxman moments". Now his name is being touted as the next BBC chairman.

Even former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard – grilled relentlessly in one of Paxman's most famous interviews – declared: "I greatly regret Jeremy's departure from Newsnight."

But I for one am delighted to hear he is leaving. And while I wish him well as an individual, and am sure that in private he may be delightful, I believe his interview style was thoroughly demeaning.

For me, the problem was the very thing for which many have praised him: his rudeness. Andrew Billen claimed that "when Paxman was at his rudest, he was at his best," and Simon Kelner highlighted his "disdainful tone and his propensity to treat any guest as a lying criminal".

And that's exactly the issue. From my own past experience as a political journalist, it seems to me that this sort of approach has fed widespread cynicism about politicians and contributed to a decline in voter participation.

Moreover, from a Christian perspective, rudeness is problematic. The Bible has many things to say about how we speak – from teaching on taming the tongue in the New Testament to a host of pithy maxims in the Old. As one proverb declares: "The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

This is even more important when we speak to – or about – those in authority. The Apostle Peter urged first century Christians not only to "show proper respect to everyone" in general but also to "honour the emperor" – a far from easy command in his particular context. And when Paul found himself lashing out at High Priest Ananias in Acts he quickly apologised, saying: "I did not realise that he was the high priest; for it is written: 'Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people'."

It is sometimes pointed out that Jesus himself was pretty blunt to a number of individuals, as are some New Testament writers. This is debateable. But either way, there is a crucial difference. As God incarnate, Jesus had a unique ability to see into people's hearts – whereas we can't. Moreover, the writers of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit in an authoritative way that we are not.

What, then, am I advocating? Some sort of fawning interview style in which government ministers are simply asked whether they have anything to announce to a waiting nation? By no means. It is possible to conduct a penetrating interview – but still be polite. Evan Davis on Radio 4 is a prime example of this.

Christian ethicist David Field sums up the issue by saying: "Words should be used to build good human relationships." He adds: "Wisdom and justice find a powerful ally in the tongue, while a well-chosen message can bring strength, healing and encouragement." But used wrongly, he says, words can feed malice, ruin reputations and generate ridicule.

So when was the last time you wrote to one of your elected representatives to thank them for some aspect of their work?

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