by Ray Fleming
WHAT is the difference between “scepticism” and “cynicism”?
Yesterday the chairman of the BBC, Michael Grade, drew a distinction between the two words in order to define the kind of news agenda that the BBC should have in the future. It should, he said, be an agenda “driven by significance not sensationalism, by scepticism not cynicism”. Mr Grade also criticised the “why is this bastard lying to me?” school of political interviewing. Although he did not name names, it is thought he was referring to Jeremy Paxman, who once used this phrase, and John Humphrys, two of the BBC's most feared, and admired, political interviewers.

The Concise Oxford says this about the two words: “scepticism: inclination to question or doubt accepted opinion”; “cynicism: believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest”. There is clearly a difference although in common usage I think their meanings are closer than the dictionary allows. Even so, was Mr Grade right to question by implication the way in which Paxman and Humphrys do their job? I do not often see the former's appearances on television but I hear almost all the latter's interviews on the Today radio programme. John Humphrys' interviewing style, especially his technique of putting his guest off balance with frequent interruptions, is undoubtedly rough and tough. But rather then the “lying bastard” approach, I think he asks himself, “why is this man, or woman, evading the question I have asked?”. Starting with the Prime Minister, as he shows in the House of Commons, most politicians seek to avoid answering the question they are asked and prefer to answer a quite different one they have themselves chosen. Someone has to stop them from doing this and as Mr Howard, for example, is patently unable to do so, why should it not be Mr Paxman or Mr Humphrys?