Jeremy Paxman and the curious incident of the North London Geek

Jonty Leibowitz  /  17 Comments

At last night’s election debates, Ed Miliband did well, very well. He outperformed expectations, offering a powerful vision for what a socially democratic Britain could look like. He made a joke about bacon sandwiches. He even dealt with the brother stuff. By most accounts, a good night.

There was one odd moment that might not make the headlines. Towards the end of the interview, as Jeremy Paxman descended into a series of personal attacks, he said: “People see you as a North London *pause* Geek.” Read that again, carefully. Can you hear it, the pregnant pause? Most people around the country probably missed it, but in my house in North London, we all gasped. Did Paxman really just say that? We all heard the same thing within the silence, a subconscious that every single one of us in the room felt we heard; Jew.

You might be thinking at this point that my family were crazy, or that we were the sort of hysterically paranoid Jews who call everything anti-semitism, like they do in the Jewish Chronicle (which, incidentally, once suggested Paxo might himself be Jewish). For the rest of this article, I don’t want to mislead you by alleging some kind of global anti-semitic, anti-Ed conspiracy, because there isn’t one. I certainly don’t want to call Jeremy Paxman an anti-semite. No, for once I’m writing more about the emotional reaction my family and I had to something we saw on TV. And it was an emotional reaction; it was something we all felt. But why?

Well, look at it this way; what even is a ‘North London Geek’? Paxman said it as if it was some sort of well-known stereotype, but surely geeks come from all over the country?  ‘North London Geek’ isn’t a cultural go-to, so it seems odd that Paxman would attempt to use it. This is not to say that a discussion about Ed appearing to be from the North London intelligentsia isn’t a relevant, if slightly below the belt, point. It is okay to talk about the ‘chattering classes’, or ‘champagne socialists’ as they’ve been called. But this didn’t feel like that, it felt different.


The argument is made all the more important by the fact that this is Ed Miliband we’re talking about. This is a man whose father was demonised as the ‘Man who hated Britain’ by the Daily Mail two years ago, even though Ralph fought for this country at war. Alongside this, there has been a consistent campaign against Miliband that he somehow seems ‘weird’, ‘odd’ and ‘different.’ Now of course, some of this is down to the fact that he is a reasonably wacky fellow, but there also seems to be a context. Take the bacon sandwich incident. Once you see the ‘Jewish’ part of the story, you cannot unsee it, as argued by Boyd Tonkin, it seemed that a double standard was being applied and there was more scrutiny on Ed than any other politician in recent memory. There is a suspicion that a lot of the vitriol to Ed comes down to a weird sense of ‘otherness’. Edward Saïd would have a field day.

The implications of this debate run even deeper, uncomfortably so. The rise of Nigel Farage’s blokey guv’nor act comes on the back of political context in which a narrow vision of ‘Englishness’ is reasserting itself, slowly but surely. In our current cultural climate, we seem to be venerating a bloke-down-the-pub, Jeremy Clarkson, Nigel Farage, pint-of-bitter, packet-of-fags kind of Englishness. Voters tend to distrust Ed Miliband and the Labour Party on immigration and argue that they lack a sense of ‘English identity’. Now again, some of this is justifiable; as the ‘White Van’ incident proved, a chasm between metropolitan elites and traditional values has opened up in this country, Jewish or not. But yet again, we cannot escape the Ed factor. Ukip’s whole schtik (yes, I used some yiddish) is rooted in the argument that Labour is somehow now ‘un-British’, hijacked by a metropolitan elite – a codeword for foreigners: Europeans, immigrants, and, of course, the Jews.

On the whole, Britain is remarkably tolerant of its Jewish community. Jews succeed in British politics with stunning consistency, and Michael Howard experienced very little ani-semitism when leader of the Tory Party. And, of course, Ed Miliband is kind of weird, and his troubles aren’t some sort of global anti-semitic conspiracy.

But, despite all of this, when Jeremy Paxman called Ed Miliband a ‘North London *pause* Geek’ tonight, I winced, because the implication was there; “You, Eddy Miliband, are from Hampstead and the Jewish socialist bubble, and that’s why people find you different and weird.” This is worrying because lurking within that statement is the idea that being Jewish will always make you an ‘other’; separated and excluded from a true, Anglo-Saxon vision of Englishness. You might read this and conclude that we Jews are a paranoid bunch, and that I’ve seen a ghost where there wasn’t one. But every single one of us in that room tonight felt some intangible reaction when Paxman said it tonight. North London Geek. North London Jew. Different. Other. Un-British. Un-welcome.

  • West London Geek

    The Metropolitan Elite is not widely defined as a codeword for foreigners, Europeans and Jews. Today’s Daily Mail - perhaps the most Europe and immigrant hating paper there is, defined it simply as ‘those who read the Guardian, drive eco-friendly cars, despise Jeremy Clarkson, and make their own Sourdough bread who inhabit trendy London postcodes.’ North London, perhaps, but no mention of Jews or foreigners.

    • Austerlitz

      Yeah, because obviously, the Daily Mail would clearly define and signpost its own antisemitism and xenophobia.

  • Geek

    This article got super defensive before it had even made a point! Ed Miliband HIMSELF made the point that he’s not a polished, charismatic figure like this predecessors, and that is CLEARLY what Paxman (and that member of the audience was getting at) with the Geek comment. This is a common and widely used observation, negative or otherwise, about Miliband. No race issue here at all, ridiculous clutching at straws going on here! Just goes to show what an absurd and badly written Labour party political broadcast this is

  • North Londoner

    What a ridiculous article. Paxman called Miliband a North London Geek and while that may have been a bit below the belt, IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE OR RELIGION.

    • Isaac solomon

      I think your wrong

      As the article states there are geeks all over the UK why place emphasis on north london aspect. It can only be linked to milibands Jewish background.

      I also felt uncomfortable when Paxman made the comment.

      • Disappointed

        North London is, broadly, an affluent area.
        Ed Miliband has a geeky, awkward demeanour.

        Paxman was making the point that he is a nerdy-looking guy from an unrepresentatively wealthy area, and doesn’t inspire confidence in the ‘common people’ of the electorate.
        This article sinks to amateurish depths in search of its phantom tiny violin, and it’s not very well written to boot. Shame.

        • huh

          wait sorry, so you’re saying that a middle class background from a London suburb is more alienating than an upper class Berkshire upbringing and an Eton education?! ?!?!?!??!?!!!

  • You’re a north london

    Shit journalist

  • JR

    Before yesterday, I had never seen ‘North London’ used in a national context as a stereotype (e.g. ‘North London geek’, ‘North London intelligentsia’). Yesterday, I saw it twice - in both instances it was used to suggest the ‘otherness’ of a North London Jew from ‘ordinary’ English people.

    1) Paxman w/ Miliband, as this article points out.
    2) Re Jeremy Clarkson’s sacking - in both the Daily Telegraph and the Times, attention was drawn to the ‘North London’ origins/mindset of Danny Cohen (Director of BBC Television) as explaining his distaste for Clarkson and the model of Britishness that he stands for.

    In the context of this second example (suggesting that when this ‘North London’ stereotype is used, it seems usually to refer to Jews), I think the argument of this article gains a bit of traction. I don’t think I’d call it anti-Semitism, but it does seem to be a new code, a politically safe way of saying ‘Jew’.

  • Beidniz

    I feel that perhaps due to your own personal encumbrances, background, culture and so forth, you quickly inferred upon some underlying Jewish undertones, in a relatively ambiguous statement. I find that Paxman, a man so well rounded in debate, would not consider drawing one’s religious and culture background as acceptable criteria, alone, to bring a point into fruition. That said, I found these personal attacks suprising. But the questions asked regarding whether Ed’s “tough enough” were perfectly reasonable. As you mentioned in your article, Miliband’s eccentricities and at times awkward demeanour, have spawned a discouragement of viewing Miliband as our country’s leader and a leader of a large influential party. In fact, this variety of questioning, I find, provided Ed with a stable platform to elucidate his “toughness” and justify his peculiarities as perfect reflections of nothing except only himself. Something seemingly so detached from contemporary politics; an honest identity. But I digress. I find that Paxman’s point did not draw upon any aspects of Miliband’s Jewish nature. Perhaps “geek” was a term laced with connotations of his wealth now and growing up, beneficial arbitrary endowments or just the sheer truth that Ed never has needed to struggle financially. These seem like reasonable suggestions as they so frequently come into question in contemporary political discussion; with all the constant questioning of the legitimacy of the “Champagne Socialist” being an acceptable representative of the ordinary, working people.

    However, to draw together all this babbling, I cannot see how “Judaism” was addressed in this phrase, even in the subtlest way. You stated for one to acknowledge how, then, all your family came to the same shock, surprise and assumption that Paxman was about t mutter the term “Jew”? Well the same can be said for all the spectators that saw no religious tinge in the statement; appreciating, perhaps, that Paxman simply felt a loss of words at this point, and as a result, muttered the word “geek” in an heightened pitch and a tone of immediate self-questioning and regret.

  • sfgdfg

    North London does have stereotypes though, stereotypes totally unrelated to the Jewish community - see for example, Private Eye’s “It’s Grim Up North London” or @Highgatemums

    • sfgdfg

      Also, “metropolitan elite – a codeword for foreigners: Europeans, immigrants, and, of course, the Jews.” is a assertion that’s completely bollocks

  • DanMidlands

    I’m not Jewish, I’m white working class and even when I heard this, I really heard “Jew”. It actually made me think of the very first episode of the West Wing, when someone verbally attacks two Jewish staff for their “New York sense of humour” which is taken by a large portion of Americans to mean Jewish. It’s the same here. I’ve never heard “North London Geek” as a label before, and his phrasing and paused speech didn’t help Paxman. I agree Paxman is not anti-semetic, but was going to make and made a slightly less offensive remark.

  • http://www.smallbizgeek.co.uk SmallBizGeek

    I’m a “Small Biz Geek” but this is not used in a derogatory sense. I think this article IS clutching at straws and is a hammer looking for a nail. I never knew Milliband was Jewish and it makes no difference to me whatsoever. I have frequently laughed at him in the way I laugh at most politicians. I guess if you’d caught me criticising Milliaband you would have accused me of anti antisemitism too?

    “Geek” can be used in many contexts.

  • aowkes

    Great article, my friends and myself (Jewish and non-Jewish) certainly feel the “North London, intellectual, left wing” stereotype is PC anti-semitism.

  • This makes no sense.

    your father is dead cnacer

  • Anonymous Sorry

    I completely agree with this excellent article. I thought exactly the same and now you’ve identified for me exactly why: ‘North London Geek’ is not a standard phrase; the word ‘Geek’ was clearly interposed at the last second for Paxman to hide the veiled Jewish reference.