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Nighty night, Paxo: This year has made us all inquisitors

IN Scotland there is an unwritten law that judges it bad form to eject one's grandmother from an autobus.

She is, after all, your mother's mother. If that is not justification enough, there is always the risk that granny will enlist the services of a no-win no-fee lawyer and sue you, her beloved kin, for compensation. Those round-the-world cruises do not pay for themselves.

There is no statute, however, against shamelessly enlisting an aged relative in the cause of the nation. From football to by-elections, distant elders can come in dashed handy in establishing a connection to a place and a duty to be done.

For that reason, perhaps we should consider asking Jeremy Paxman, possessor of a Scottish great-grandmother and grandmother, to forget that stuff and nonsense about leaving Newsnight and come hame for the referendum.

That his departure prompted so much coverage might be seen as the media once again gazing at its own belly button and finding all the fluff gathered there fascinating. While that is true to a certain extent, there is something significant about Paxman's leaving, because he represents a style of broadcast journalism that is in danger of disappearing, yet one which should be more, not less, in evidence as the minutes tick onwards to September 18.

At his best, Paxman deployed what might be called in fancy terms the inquisitorial style of interviewing, also known as the Corporal Jones, "they don't like it up 'em", approach. He did not see it as his job to give any politician, of whatever party, an easy ride. It is a noble aim, but one which is becoming harder to pursue. With an ever growing number of broadcasting outlets vying for their attention, the wily politician can easily opt for the soft interview over the tougher kind.

Before we fill the water glasses and gather round a wonky coffee table to discuss this matter further, I should cough to once working on Newsnight. It was back in the days when dinosaurs first toddled across the Earth, when the Scottish Parliament was naught but a glint in an old romantic's eye, and Nigel Farage was treated with disdain rather than as a PM in waiting. Yes, that long ago.

Newsnight was fast and furiously demanding. Some days, one would look at the careers of kamikaze pilots and mine canaries and sigh with envy. But after a long, long day at the live television coalface, there was still nothing more enticing than the prospect of doing it all again tomorrow.

As for Mr Paxman, he might have ruffled the egos of politicians, but I did not encounter any guest, be they an expert or a member of the public, who did not leave the green room an admirer.

What Paxo had (one should really say "has"; he is not dead, just presenting University Challenge) is a strong journalistic sense of them and us, with politicians being in the former camp and the rest of us in the latter.

One could argue that with his six-figure salary, his Cambridge and BBC background and his jolly nice life in general that he was as firmly a part of the Establishment as any of "them", but he that was not how he saw it. He felt himself to be an outsider, an individual looking in, which should be a basic requirement in any journalist.

Though the Leeds-born Paxman liked to tease Scots with claims of a "Scottish raj" running the country, one would like to think much of his success as an inquisitor was down to his Scottish roots. That, and a hefty dollop of Yorkshire stubbornness.

It was the story of how his maternal great-grandmother, a Glasgow widow with nine children, had been left penniless after being refused poor relief that reduced the grand inquisitor to fury, then tears, during the genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? Whether he chose to be on a certain side, or whether that side was chosen for him in a Glasgow tenement long ago and far away from his privileged life of today, is a question for his memoirs.

Either way, he selected a side and opted for a profession, television journalism, and stuck to it. In later years he increasingly took on the role of defending his trade against those who would trivialise it out of existence, or kill it with blandness and mismanagement. His 2007 McTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival even dared to ask what television was "for".

In Scotland, it is a question that is becoming ever more pressing. For a start, there is the matter of what broadcasting will look and sound like should Scotland vote to become independent. Will it be parochial and second class, or outward looking and ambitious? If, in future, we want the latter (and who, regardless of whether they are Yes/No/Don't Know, would not?), then it hardly helps today's broadcasters to be routinely shouted down and accused of bias when they are seen to be trying to hold politicians to account.

The complainers would doubtless say that they are not asking for special favours but impartiality. But they have a funny old idea of how a free media and impartiality work. A single truth is not handed down, on a neatly typed press release, from on high. Voters do not make judgments based on the views of one person or party. They take their information from a range of sources - including newspapers, family, friends, television and radio - and make up their own minds. That is how a healthy democracy, underpinned by a free media, operates. Run by humans for humans, it is naturally an imperfect system, but if anyone can think of a better way then do speak up at the back.

One of the many remarkable facets of this referendum campaign is the way it keeps on trucking. This has been one of the longest political tussles of our lifetimes, but far from becoming scunnered with the subject the public wants to know more. It is not a case of gie us peace, but gie us the facts. This, you might think, is where the likes of Mr Paxman might come in handy.

Independence, alas, is a matter too knotty, too momentous, for just one person to take the lead. No one individual is going to ride to the rescue and show voters the light, the truth and the way. What the media can do, what it has been doing, is to supply the information from which choices can be made, to reflect the arguments going on in wider society, and to pay attention to the flaws and finer points of both sides.

There is another reason why Scotland should wish Mr Paxman well in his quest to get to bed at a reasonable hour rather than wish he was here. His job is already being done by the Scottish media, which is as it should be, because they know the territory and because they have lived, breathed, and reported this story since Jeremy first learned to roll his eyes heavenwards at a dissembling minister. Slowly, the fog of information, claim and counterclaim, will clear. We are all inquisitors now.

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