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How Paxman honed his news skills at Belfast BBC interview

By Eddie McIlwaine

I've just been browsing through Jeremy Paxman's autobiography, in which he amusingly reflects on his first appointment as a reporter in the BBC. He went to BBC Northern Ireland for an interview back in the 1970s and on the appointments board was the news editor at Ormeau Avenue, Robin Walsh, whose leg was in plaster after severing an Achilles tendon while playing cricket.

Paxman was asked about the thorny issue of interviewing men of violence and was posed the hypothetical question: "You are on the Falls Road with a camera crew and you spot the most wanted man in Ireland, Seamus Twomey, the chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. Do you interview him?"

Paxman: "Yes. I would interview him."

Walsh: "Let's pretend I'm Seamus Twomey. What's your first question to me?"

Paxman: "How's the leg, Seamus?"

Walsh - described by Paxman as "tough and talented" and who later became Controller of BBC Northern Ireland - remembers the appointments board for another reason.

"At the end of the board, Jeremy was asked if he had any question for us. He proceeded to give us the sort of grilling he was later to inflict on politicians in the Newsnight studio. So much so that, at the end of the board, I said to a colleague, 'Do you think we impressed him?'"

After a spell in the newsroom, Paxman joined the Spotlight current affairs team, before finding national acclaim in London. Paxman has been making news himself recently after separating from his partner and mother of their three children, television producer Elizabeth Clough. I read somewhere that they both met when they worked together on Newsnight, in fact, it was earlier than that - they were first introduced when they were news trainees in the Belfast newsroom.

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