Ian Burrell: Acclaimed radio presenter whose show scares off Tory ministers

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The Independent Online

Maybe it's the Ken Clarke factor? Government ministers have become strangely frightened of appearing on Victoria Derbyshire's show for Radio 5 Live, from which the Justice Secretary scurried out in his Hush Puppies after a dreadful mauling last year.

Ken's pursuers that day were the 5 Live listeners, after he had been skilfully turned on his heels by the show's no-nonsense Lancastrian presenter after an ill-advised attempt to define rape in various shades of seriousness. "Rape is rape, with respect," Derbyshire reminded him. "No, it's not," responded Clarke, as the usually unruffled cigar-smoking, jazz-loving daddy-o descended into a stammering defence of his proposal to discount the sentences of rapists, while victims of rapists called into the show to argue with him.

Since that interview last summer, for which Derbyshire has been given one of two nominations in next month's Sony radio awards, the presenter's relationship with the government has been difficult. "What we are finding is tricky is getting a Conservative minister on to the programme to talk to listeners," she says. "Obviously there is no rule that says they have to come on to our programme and talk to listeners but in the end listeners are voters and it is part of their job description to engage with voters about policy."

This fear of Derbyshire's listeners might be because she has coached them well. Her interviewing style has many admirers, including the Daily Telegraph's Gillian Reynolds, doyenne of radio critics, who describes her as "skilful and patient".

But she hasn't always felt the support of her bosses. When Adrian van Klaveren arrived as Radio 5 Live's controller in 2008, Derbyshire was convinced that he was not a fan after he cut an hour from her show. "I felt a bit under siege then and I thought 'That's it, the new boss doesn't like me and we are going to have to do something about this because I love this job'. We worked very hard to differentiate ourselves again and focused on long interviews."

Derbyshire has proved her point with Sony nominations for Best Interview and for Speech Broadcaster of the Year. Recently she has been living with her mother in Bolton, a consequence of 5 Live's move to Salford. The BBC is terrified of negative coverage of this relocation and will be reassured by Derbyshire's assertion that it has made "absolutely zero difference" to her show as "we don't do celebrity or showbusiness guests".

In truth, she often uses the BBC's Westminster studios to interview politicians and still spends a lot of her week in the south. Her husband, Mark, is an editor on the World Service and had recent postings to Kabul and the Falkland Islands. The BBC allows her to present from London during such periods "so that one of us is near where the children go to school". But you could hardly accuse her of promoting London bias. She lives outside the capital ("I don't feel like I'm in a Westminstery bubble") and has spent most of her life in the north-west of England. "Normal" is a word she uses to describe herself.

The key to Derbyshire's broadcasting technique is that she listens to what her guests have to say and doesn't cut them short. She mixes it with politicians but can be sensitive with callers like Rachel, the doctor who phoned in one morning to say she was an alcoholic. As they spoke, an extraordinary moment of radio emerged. "I said 'Are you pouring yourself a drink?' and there was a big pause and she said 'Yes, do you want me to go?' and I was horrified that that was how she'd taken it. I said 'No, it's up to you, if you want to go that's fine and if you want to continue talking to us that's fine but no one is judging you.' That's exactly what I think I'd say if Rachel was sitting opposite me now."

It is said of her that she could keep calm if her hair was on fire. "I don't get panicky [but] my voice does rise a little bit if I'm in a debate with somebody, but that's just because I'm passionate about the conversation."

She wants to do things that radio broadcasters haven't done before, like getting a serving High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, to come and talk about his life. He revealed that he is one of five judges who ride motorcycles into the Royal Courts of Justice and call themselves Hell's Angels. "It gives an insight into his life which you would never get if he didn't come on the show and talk to listeners," says Derbyshire. "He gets his leathers on every morning!" Next, she is planning a live broadcast from an abortion clinic.

Radio 5 was once known as "Radio Bloke" but Derbyshire has helped to dispel that. "It's so ridiculous. Which is the speech radio station that has the most female presenters and production staff? It's us!" With her experience in long-form heavyweight interviews she could be a contender for a role on Radio 4's Today – which is still criticised for the lack of women in its presenting team.