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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

Why James O'Brien Must Replace Jeremy Paxman On Newsnight

The LBC Radio bruiser wouldn't have gone so easy on Nigel Farage in last night's show.

by Gavin Haynes
20 May 2014, 7:30am

Last night's Farage special proved that Newsnight needs new blood (Image courtesy of BBC)

A few weeks ago, when Jeremy Paxman announced he was leaving Newsnight, everyone wondered who'd fill the role of the nation's TV attack dog. Who would jump the garden gate and maul passing politicians like he did here, with ex-Treasury Minister Chloe Smith? Who, frankly, would keep British politics in line? Well finally, I think we have found our guy.

Firstly though, it's worth noting that Paxman's last truly fatal savaging (Chloe Smith was reshuffled into oblivion), was two years ago now. In truth, back then he was a slightly more engaged figure; a wounded optimist who didn't roll his eyes quite so much. What caused the existential funk he currently finds himself in? Well, it could have been when Newsnight wrongly identified Lord McAlpine as a potential paedophile, or it could have been when he was asked to chair a debate about Cheryl Cole’s arse tattoo. These moments are hard to pin down. 

However, it is a personal gloom that has taken a few milliseconds off his timing. Last night's Farage vs. Paxman face-off was meant to light the taper on the political week. Paxo was meant to deliver a Mortal Kombat finish-him headchop to a figure staggering around with only one red flashing health bar left after James O’Brien rabidly and forensically disassembled the UKIP leader on his LBC Radio show on Friday. Instead, what we got was Parky with manifesto pledges. Paxman enquiring after Nigel’s health. In all, less wing chun bloodbath, more capoeira – two very distinguished old hands dancing elegantly around each other in a simulation of combat.

It’s not really Jeremy’s fault. Part of the problem is that when he burst to life in the late 80s, Paxman pioneered a whole new style of savaging, but in the intervening years, politicians have learned how to parry it. They all sat down with their spin doctors, went through the super-slo-mo version of him and Michael Howard, and realised that with the right combinations of skate and bluster, a skilled politician could get by with a few learnable blocking tactics. This is actually more easily done when your opponent is the Paxman type of pugilist, the sort of boxer who these days just winds up in an attempt to land heavy whomping blow after heavy whomping blow. Compare this technique with a more feline, less predictable mind like Andrew Neil. Clearly, the time has come for a new way forward.

Which is why, when Jeremy falls on his sword at the end of the summer, they should give the job to James O’Brien. Go on. Do something daring for once, all you Heads Of Vision and Heads Of Audiences at the BBC. Give it to a preternaturally smart old school talk radio boyo. You won’t look back.

Right now, loads of names are being thrown into the hat. But most of those are the same re-shuffled playing cards from the safe, tested, inoffensive mid-ranks. Eddie Mair. Fine. Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Good. Kirsty Wark. Decent. 

James O'Brien demolishing UKIP leader Nigel Farage last week

O’Brien, on the other hand, comes from a different tradition of bruiser. While in many ways a stock leftie, he was also schooled on the Express’ diary column, and at LBC is presently pupil to Nick Ferrari – a very different species to the chummy visual emollients in which the BBC specialises. O’Brien may have been to the same private schools as them, but he comes tooled with the instincts of a cabbie, and the sort of prickling intelligence that has as much in common with South London pubs as it does Oxbridge debating societies. Not to say that he isn’t forensic – there was something of the amphetamine-fuelled barrister to how he worked the sweet spot of his point on Friday. Farage would gallop off like an antelope with a spear in its thigh, and every single time he started to get away, O’Brien would wheel him back round for more bloodshed. The speed was devastating. The research was deadly. The sense of anticipation was uncanny.

Of course, those same red-top instincts that give O’Brien his full-blooded air don’t always sum to what you might call "nice" – remember what he did to poor Frank Lampard? But remember also the way he growled back at an inflamed Kay Burley in defence of his interview. There’s something red and raw and a bit scary there. A whiff of genuine, not putting-it-on nastiness that would put some fear into the political classes, too. After all, that’s 72 percent of the reason anyone would tune into Newsnight in an age of constant news-blast: because they get the big names on their leather chairs. And then they fry them and eat their balls for dinner.

More than any other European nation, we’re always up for a few Christians going to our pet lions. Let's grease the bastards up and throw them to O’Brien. 

@GavHaynes