Paxman in Wonderland


All blog posts 2012 + Original posts list: from 2006 to 2012

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10th March 2012

(Updated 13th March: John Rentoul on BBC’s Paxman &  “over-compression”!)

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

“Curiouser and curiouser!”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 2)

Jeremy’s Adventures in Wonderland

Once upon a time there was a big, bad TV presenter who went by the name of Jeremy Paxman. He worked for a nationwide broadcasting channel, the BBC, which prided itself on being righteously impartial in a wicked media world of self-serving partiality.

[“Now, I give you fair warning,” shouted the Queen, stamping on the ground as she spoke; “either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time! Take your choice!”  (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9) ]

"Oops! I didn't really mean it", said Queen P from behind her mask. "Now put it back on."

However, Jeremy was a very opinionated sort of person who found it difficult to abide by the detailed impartiality rules that had been drawn up for the BBC. One day he could hold back no longer and tore into an unfortunate politician, Douglas Alexander (as mentioned here by John Rentoul, when it occurred ONE year ago) who had the temerity to defend a former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for whom Jeremy had much disdain, likening him to a “millionaire Messiah”.  The interview concerned Blair’s relationship with a nasty Arab leader, Colonel Gaddafi, who had been persuaded by the former Prime Minister to give up his extremely nasty weapons and join the fight against an even nastier common enemy.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)

The Queen of Hearts rules over Wonderland and is a tyrant - violent, authoritative and dominant. She likes to play croquet with live flamingoes and hedgehogs as mallets and balls (but only when she wins, and by her own rules) and constantly orders the beheading of people when something isn't to her liking (although these orders apparently never are actually carried out). She also has her own ideas about how trials should be conducted, and is feared by all other Wonderland inhabitants because of her lack of patience and explosive character.

Jeremy conducted the interview in such an obviously biased way that a member of the public was prompted to complain to the BBC.

'That's what you call a History of England, that is. Now, take a good look at me! I'm one that has spoken to a King, I am: mayhap you'll never see such another: and, to show you I'm not proud, you may shake hands with me!'

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

The complaint centred on a passage in the interview which the complaining person reported as follows:

“His lips curling with contempt, Paxman asked Alexander whether he was proud of the pictures of Blair embracing Gaddafi, emphasising the words “proud” and “embracing”. He then went on to refer to “the killing being done by someone who our former PM had clasped to his bosom and whose son had referred to him as a close personal friend (with the words “bosom”, “close”, “personal”, “friend” being almost spat out. This was followed by – “So we have got a despot still in power, having been clasped to his bosom by our former PM (notice the repetition of the bosom clasping reference) and you still show no sign of apologising for this? (with a note of incredulity in his voice). Then in response to an answer from Alexander he almost screams at him “Stop passing the buck to the international community!”

After the complaint had been duly rejected by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (otherwise known as the BBC Protection Society) it was taken to the BBC’s eminent watchdog, the Great and the Good of the BBC Trust, which had the task of ensuring that the BBC complied with its impartiality rules.

Such a clear case of bias presented the Great and the Good with a problem. To uphold the complaint might result in the BBC upsetting and possibly losing one of its star performers: to reject the complaint would make a mockery of its sacred impartiality rules.


Alice falls down the rabbit hole. When she turns the corner the Rabbit is gone and Alice finds herself in a long, low hall, with doors all round it. She tries them, but they are all locked.

So there was only one answer, to go down the rabbit hole and have the matter dealt with by the Wonderland branch of the BBC Trust where the accepted rules of logic and adjudication, such as addressing the precise terms of a complaint on the basis of the arguments and evidence provided, do not apply. Moreover the Wonderland branch of the Trust could be relied on to convey their findings in such a long-winded, gobbledygook kind of way that no one would bother to read them, let alone make the effort to understand them.

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is–‘Be what you would seem to be’–or if you’d like it put more simply–‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'”
“I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “`if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.”
“That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,” the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9)

The Duchess is very ugly and mistreats her baby. She is also fond of finding morals in things. She tries to be in everyone's good books (especially the Queen's) by acting very complimentary.


Many months later, Jeremy’s case found its way to the Wonderland adjudicating committee (things move very slowly in such cases). His defence, formulated by the Editorial Complaints Unit (the BBC Protection Society) rested on the usual proposition that any views or attitudes that Jeremy had shown in the interview were not his own and that the public did not consider them to be his own anyway. The opposing case was based on there being no evidence for the proposition and clear evidence that the reverse was true.

"We're all mad here" (The Cheshire Cat)

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

The Committee eventually delivered their inevitable verdict, finding against the complaint and deploying all the absurdities of Wonderland to justify their decision.

“Oh”, said Alice the Complainant, “substance and bias and phrasing and manner. Whatever can it all mean?”

The substance of Jeremy’s questioning, it concluded, did not show any bias, even though the complaint was not about the substance of the questioning but about the phrasing and manner of the questioning. Just because an interviewer may hold certain views, it went on, does not mean the interview was conducted in a partial manner, despite the complaint being about Jeremy revealing his bias by the manner of his questioning.

Finally, in a dazzling display of Wonderland logic the Committee, ruled that the evidence supporting the case against Jeremy was irrelevant, even though on a very similar case previously put to the Committee they had concluded that the views and attitudes conveyed by Jeremy were not his own (and no one thought they were) because no evidence had been presented to the contrary.

The brothers Tweedledee & Tweedledum (aka BBC & BBC Trust) are rather affectionate with each other, but don't hesitate to fight over insignificant matters. They are also cowardly.

Everyone, bar the complainant, was happy. Jeremy was happy because there would be no verdict against him at a time when he was strutting his Empire stuff. The BBC was happy since they had avoided an embarrassing punch-up with one of their most valuable assets which could not be allowed to fail. And the BBC’s poodle (sorry, watchdog), the BBC Trust, happily wagged its tail having once again done its master’s bidding.

The only slight doubt was about whether someone in an influential position might notice that the verdict came from the Wonderland branch of the Trust. But on past form they knew they had little to worry about since those who reported these things tended to turn a blind eye to Wonderland verdicts which concerned the former Prime Minister.

“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9)


In case some might dismiss the above as a fairy tale, it should be noted that the recent BBC Trust decision on which the story was based is even more replete with Wonderland absurdities, as can be seen from this link to the actual findings

(scroll down to page 31) and from this extract from the full response of the complainant to the findings.


(Thanks to this site for most of the pictures, quotes & interpretations of Alice’s adventures.)

(‘Jeremy in Wonderland’  –  continued here)


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One Response to “Paxman in Wonderland”

  1. j. west Says:

    The BBC Trust is in Wonderland too – but no great surprise; it is an institution relying on illogical argument to rationalise its obvious bias.

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