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Ian Burrell: Michael Crick, the master of politcal ambush


People go to great lengths to avoid Michael Crick. During an election campaign, the former Tory leader Michael Howard hid in a heliport after the irreverent and bespectacled reporter turned up in the BBC chopper in hot pursuit. He is an unofficial biographer and untiring nemesis of Jeffery Archer, who tried to lock him out of a press event at Conservative Central Office before hissing: "You wait til I'm mayor, you'll find out how tough I am."

Crick, 53, is the master of the political ambush, adept at puncturing political pomposity with a pointed question that can make mockery of a carefully orchestrated photo opportunity or press launch. Peter Mandelson tried to throw off his journalistic stalker, but couldn't escape the taunting words: "Will you be telling any lies today Mr Mandelson?" For party apparatchiks and political minders, Crick's presence is the subject of deep discomfort and his on-camera barbs are potentially more damaging than a well-aimed egg or paper-plated foam pie.

But for the past year, the BBC itself seems to have been anxious to see the back of one of its most recognisable correspondents. Under pressure to quit his role as political editor of Newsnight, Crick has jumped ship to the rival Channel 4 News, after 21 years at the BBC. Clearly, he is not sorry to go.

"Things got a bit difficult for me on Newsnight at the end," he says, sitting on a park bench overlooking the River Thames. "I was 19 years on Newsnight and 18 of them were extremely happy and then towards the end, about a year ago, they made it clear to me that they wanted me to stop being the political editor and do another job, which was ill-defined. They sort of said it would involve politics but they wanted to bring in somebody else as political editor and I wasn't very happy with that, to put it mildly."

As a founder member of Channel 4 News in 1982, Crick likes to think he will benefit from going back to his journalistic roots. "I think this move will rejuvenate me. It will reinvigorate me," he says. "It's where I developed my style as a reporter back in the 80s. I remember my editor, Stewart Purvis, in the '87 election saying 'Michael, I want you to go out and follow each of the party leaders for several days and take the piss out of them'." The recollection of his tailing of Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, David Owen and David Steel, prompts a schoolboyish guffaw, which is how he concludes most of his anecdotes. Newsnight was apparently uncomfortable with the rumbustious Crick in the mainstream role of political editor, a position to which he was appointed shortly before the arrival of the current programme editor, Peter Rippon. He feels hard done by. "They wanted more analysis, analysis that was different from what Nick Robinson was doing on the Ten O'Clock News, they wanted to break more stories. I thought it was a bit unfair really, I think I was the first broadcaster to say that Ed Miliband would be the next leader of the Labour Party and the first broadcaster to say that John Bercow would be the next speaker of the House of Commons, and a lot of other things besides."

He has to plan his trademark ambushes carefully. "There's a great art to door stepping which I have learned some of. It's also partly timing. You have got to get the question just at the right moment, slightly ahead of everybody else, a short question no more than about six words if you can think of it, and it's got to sum up the story."

His finest execution of the ploy was a sting on Iain Duncan Smith after the then Tory leader had just made his famous "the quiet man is here to stay" speech, and then held a press conference at which he refused to take questions. Crick followed him to an event at the Ivy restaurant in London where, at the suggestion of his sound engineer, he bellowed at the aloof IDS: "Aren't you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?"

To some on the right, the Mancunian Crick is a relentless baiter of the Tories. But asked about the current state of politics he says: "I think the coalition is working rather well", expressing admiration for the high level of activity and radical agendas of most government departments. "I think Cameron is so far turning out to be quite a good prime minister and I think he enjoys the job."

Despite his theatrical instinct for timing, Crick is really a parliamentary swot, obsessed with the history of politics as much as with contemporary Westminster events. "I'm going to look like a complete anorak, well, I am a complete anorak," he concedes after a tirade about the "scandal" of the state of the BBC news archive.

Politicians would prefer that this anorak was adorned with fluorescent safety signs. The Labour Party even jeopardised his entry to its conference by sending him a pass with his old job title at Newsnight printed on it. You don't get rid of Michael Crick that easily.