EVAN DAVIS: “I was tired the whole time at Oxford. Eight weeks is nothing.”
Evan Davis at the Union: On the challenges of Newsnight, the BBC and why the world has moved on from Paxman.
Evan Davis is a bit of an enigma. He is friendly and charming, casually chatting to union members with a glass of wine as he prepares to swap the interviewer’s seat for the interviewee’s. I can’t help wondering what lies behind that cool and collected exterior.
Davis has quite the CV. He took an unusual path into journalism, starting out at the institute of fiscal studies and becoming an established economist before joining the BBC. He describes his economic experience as “a little rock on which I could stand in the messy world of journalism.”
I ask him how he has found his new role at Newsnight, a job he started back in 2014. “The thing is television is surprisingly honest. I get very nervous, sick to the stomach nervous.”
Following in the footsteps of the nation’s favourite bully, Jeremy Paxman, we can understand why he might be nervous. Paxman left some big shoes to fill (as well as some fantastically contemptuous facial expressions). “It’s had lots of challenges but none of them have really related to Jeremy Paxman,” Davis insists, “it’s just a difficult job to do well and it’d going to take me quite a lot of years to master it. I don’t think anyone thinks I’m trying to be Jeremy Paxman.”
The contrast between Paxman and Davis couldn’t be starker. And I’m not just talking about the difference in interviewing technique. The Oxford graduate admits, “I’m not a tie wearer,” instead he opts for ripped jeans and a tight T-shirt on his days off. He has also supposedly been nicknamed “tinsel tits” by the colleagues at the BBC for his alleged nipple rings.
Since Evans has taken over the top job, there has been a shift from tough aggressive questioning to a new kind of broadcasting, a more convivial approach. Davis, while praising Paxman’s ability, suggested that his combative approach is a bit “worn out” and “overdone” now, and emphasised the need for change.
“Shouting makes good television, a lot of people like it. But when I have two guests who I know have been put in the studio shout at each other, I try and mediate and take a broader view.”
But Davis himself has come under fire for his interviewing technique. During an interview with George Osborne, one critic claimed that we find out more about Davis, who consistently interrupted the Chancellor, rather than Osborne himself. How does Davis take this critique? “It’s a lot of scrutiny,” he says, “There have been good days and bad days and days feeling elated some days thinking how rubbish about myself.”
Davis has a lot of exposure to politicians over the years and interviewed all the party leaders before the election back in 2015. “Politicians are better in private that in public. They can be engaging, interesting and interested when they don’t have to fit soundbites like ‘cost of living’ into every sentence.” He compares political debates to Greco roman wrestling “they tussle for a bit then fall on the ground and nothing happens.”
He explains the problem is politicians have got into the habit of being too adversarial: “It’s hard to break out this pattern. Politics is in a sad state.”
Talking of politics we get on to the subject of Davis’ personal politics and the difficulties of staying neutral. It must be incredibly hard to evade the subconscious personal bias but Davis assures me that he takes the constitutional role of the BBC very seriously. “Of course no journalism is totally impartial, but if I say I vote Labour or vote Conservative it’s an abuse of my position because people will listen to me more because I’m a BBC person. I owe it to you to have a degree of detachment.”
This impartiality is particularly important at the moment as Davis is conducting a series of interviews about the upcoming EU referendum. “You should all be very interested in this vote,” he says “you’ll be talking about it in 40 years time. It is a really big moment.”
He encourages us to think about the broader implications of the vote rather than all the political squabbles that occupy the front page of the Daily Mail. “It’s an interesting drama between Cameron and Boris: the playing out of the two ex Bullingdon club members, but this is an issue Britain has grappled for as long as we have not had the Empire, and it seems to divide people in quite unpredictable ways.”
On the topic of divisive and unpredictable issues, I ask Davis about his notorious interview with Russell Brand.
It was a shouty exchange, but perhaps one of the strangest thing about the interview was the way Brand kept leaning in to touch Evan’s knee. When I asked him if this was uncomfortable, he said, “It didn’t feel uncomfortable, I was just scared it was going to get out of control and he’d walk off.”
So how does he deal with people like Russell Brand? “Not very well. It wasn’t my finest moment. My editor said ‘I’m not sure how that’s going to go down’, but in terms of the post press coverage, I probably got the better end”.
“If you dealing with someone awkward or uncivil the best thing to do, if you can manage it, is to be incredibly calm and civil back and not to let it escalate. It stops the temperature rising.”
What was going on with Russell Brand was all quite intense. He kept trying to diverge from questions and undermine Davis with witty and outrageous quips, which eventually lead to Davis saying, “I am trying to take you seriously.” You’ve really got to admire Davis’ patience though. “I think its better to try and be smiling civil and well mannered. I don’t always achieve that in my emails to complaining viewers, but I try my best.”
As a graduate of Oxford University and former Editor of Cherwell student newspaper, being interviewed by student journalists must have been a surreal and nostalgic experience for Davis. When asked what he remembers about his experience at Oxford he just says, “being tired the whole time. One thing I appreciate now is just how short the terms are and how intense they are. Eight weeks is nothing.”
But as we crawl past the week eight mark, terms really don’t feel too short. Maybe Evan can see the look of distaste on my face and the deep exhaustion in my eyes, he laughs and tells me to “hang on in there.” His empathy is much appreciated.