The job of a BBC political editor can seem more like diplomacy than the pursuit of news, as defined by publisher William Randoph Hearst – something somebody doesn't want printed. I remember buying As It Seemed to Me by John Cole, the 1980s predecessor of Nick Robinson, who promised the "inside story". I had hoped for enticing insights, but was left disappointed.
Robinson, at least, warns us in his foreword that "since I have to maintain good working relations with the politicians whose decisions and actions I report on daily, now is not the time to write in any detail about those who are still active in politics." So, clearly Live from Downing Street does not mean "live" now.
There are, however, some historical gems, such as Winston Churchill's hatred of the BBC's founding father, John Reith – a feeling that was mutual (and led to the creation of ITV). Other leaders have chosen more emollient means of curbing the fourth estate. Lord Palmerston, we learn, seduced the press with the same gusto as he did the opposite sex. As Humbert Wolfe observes, there is no point trying to "bribe or twist a British journalist", when, and I summarise, flattery is cheaper and so much more effective. Indeed, Robinson himself admits to feeling warmly disposed towards Gordon Brown after a bottle of champagne and being asked for his advice (Brown even took notes!). The spell soon wore off after one of Brown's flashes of bad temper, but Robinson also admits that he remained too "squeamish" to ask the prime minister in public about his erratic behaviour.
The Palmerston approach appears more effective than, for example, the persistent attacks rained on the BBC during the Blair years. The Corporation learned to reject all of them, the justified as well as the vexatious. Blair's standing – for all Alastair Campbell's efforts – was irretrievably despoiled by the war in Iraq.
An atmosphere of mutual dependency, egos and a bunker mentality pervades Robinson's description of the relationship between many journalists and politicians. He even compares his job to that of a foreign correspondent, filing reports from the Westminster village. The population of that village is remarkably homogeneous. So many leaders and political editors attended the same schools and then studied the same subject (PPE) at the same university (Oxford), often at the same time. Robinson himself must have crossed paths with many of them too. Arguably, having shared student life with the people now running the country and on whom you are reporting is a problem. There should be a difference between giving the inside story and becoming an insider, and village life may not be conducive to that distinction.
Sonia Purnell is author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, Aurum Press, £8.99Reuse content