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Asking for trouble: A profile of presenter Evan Davis

His critics portray him as something of a softie but openly gay Evan Davis, of Dragons' Den fame, will be no pushover when he takes over the mantle from Jeremy Paxman on BBC2's Newsnight, writes Ian Burrell.

More than 20 years after he joined the BBC as an economics correspondent, Evan Davis still has to put up with detractors who would like to portray him as something of a softie.

He is 'dainty', 'pixie-like', 'lightweight' and 'with the figure of a size zero model', according to the loaded barbs in the right-wing diary columns and leader pages. But Davis will not be intimidated for the simple reason that he believes the insinuation that he is a pushover is quite wrong. Colleagues remark not only on his great intellect but on his supreme self-confidence.

From the moment he was announced as the successor to Jeremy Paxman as lead presenter of Newsnight, Davis has been the subject of comparisons with the great inquisitor of the BBC flagship current affairs show. It might be right to suggest Davis is not as aggressive in his interviewing as a man who was often described as a rottweiler, but his less direct style can be equally effective. Where interviewees always approached Paxman with guard held high and rehearsed responses at the ready, Davis's genial disposition can lower defences and generate a more revealing dialogue.

He has demonstrated as much during nearly seven years as a presenter on Radio 4's Today. Editor Jamie Angus credits Davis with having done more than anyone to "define the current sound of Today", thanks to his "endless enthusiasm" and "original editorial insight".

For Newsnight, Davis represents something fresh for a programme that is going through a calculated transition. Having become known for its tone of world-weary cynicism, it will be imbued with the new lead presenter's open curiosity. Older viewers will remember his time as the show's economics editor, when Paxman nicknamed him 'Tigger' because of his bouncy presence.

Some observers had hoped Paxo's departure in June would create an opportunity for a female lead, but the diversity police would struggle to write off Davis as another middle-aged, Oxbridge-educated white male from the Home Counties – even if that's exactly what he is.

There is something about the boundless energy that makes Davis seem younger than his 52 years. He cuts a very modern figure. A distinctive shaven head and sticking-out ears mean he is not conventionally telegenic – and that's also seen as to his advantage. The fact he is openly gay (his French partner is a landscape architect) also helps him stand out, although the right-wing papers that obsess over his sexuality and rumoured tastes in intimate body art are still trying to link his private life with a political agenda.

Given titles such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have consistently attempted to characterise Newsnight as a nest of left-leaning journalists led by Ian Katz, the former deputy editor of The Guardian, Davis will know he is in for a bumpy ride. But the "scary prospect" of the prestige role, he says, was one he couldn't resist. "How could I turn down the offer ... of treading in the footsteps of some of the best television presenters in the business?"

The fact he has hosted one of BBC2's most popular shows, Dragons' Den, for nearly a decade will smooth his return to TV news. Although it was not a significant factor in his appointment, it means he has a high public profile and – in a broader role than Paxman's – is set to work "in the field" hosting packages as well as those in the studio.

Davis was regarded as one of about four possible candidates for the job, alongside big hitters such as Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Radio 4 colleague Eddie Mair and BBC political editor Nick Robinson.

More than anything, Newsnight has hired him for his forensic interviewing approach. "He doesn't go for the shins with the first question but builds in a devastating way," said one BBC colleague.

According to Angus: "He has a great lightness of touch and ability to deal courteously and civilly with people while pressing his point quite intensely."

Davis was, however, severely criticised in January following a Today interview with Lord Mandelson on the EU referendum. Lord Tebbit described the exchange as "pathetically obsequious", and the MP Mark Reckless said the Labour peer had been given an "easy ride".

It has been noted that during his student days (he read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, and public administration at Harvard), Davis was a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party. He was also criticised for his ferocious questioning of the Chancellor George Osborne in December, with calls for him to be referred to the broadcast regulator Ofcom for his "hostility". That rather scotched the notion of Davis as a dainty pushover.

As for those who claim a left-wing bias, they should know that David Cameron's director of communications has spoken of Davis in glowing terms. "He's an extraordinary talent," said Craig Oliver, in 2007 when he was editor of the BBC's Ten O'Clock News and Davis had just been appointed to Today. "When you compare him to others in the broadcasting world, he is in a different league. He has wit and self-deprecation and a huge amount of intellectual honesty."

After university, Davis – who is the son of South African immigrants and grew up in Surrey – worked as an economist for the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the London Business School. He came to journalism in his 30s.

Justin Webb, his presenting colleague on Today, says that Davis's numeracy marks him out from other interviewers. "He is actually excited by numbers in a way that very few journalists are." Webb recalls how a "genuinely annoyed" Davis once rebuked a colleague live on air for using the word "stat". "That's not a stat, it's a fact!" said the former economist. Being comfortable with data – which is increasingly important in modern media and politics – enables Davis to challenge evasive interviewees.

When Webb joins Davis in the Today newsroom at 4am and they go through the ritual of serving themselves drinks from the office coffee machine, he is glad to have the company of an "amiable, witty and genial person". He says it "doesn't compute" that such a personality necessarily produces a mild interviewer and emphasises that Davis shows no anxiety in the studio. "He's immensely strong and pretty confident of his own abilities."

That comment echoes one made by Adrian Chiles, who while presenting BBC2's Working Lunch was given an award for business journalism, which Davis had previously won. "I'm just not worthy," admitted Chiles to Davis, who "nodded, quite seriously" in response.

According to Webb, Davis – with his "circumlocutory style" – has been responsible for developing the tone of Today from the "relentless" pursuit of the "courtroom drama" interview to an "educated intelligent conversation". He says much of the audience have enjoyed the change, though some continue to demand that powerful figures are treated with aggression.

Those Newsnight viewers who tuned in to see Paxman working over a politician may feel they are no longer getting their regular diet of red meat. But Evan Davis may just expand their palate.

A life so far ...

Born: April 8, 1962, in Surrey

Family: Parents emigrated from South Africa. Father was an electronics engineer

Education: Ashcombe School, Dorking. Studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, where he edited the student newspaper, Cherwell

Career: Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies before joining BBC in 1993. Became a presenter on Radio 4's Today in 2008. Also presents Dragons' Den

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