Don't forget to wave your arms about, Nick

There's a new man outside No 10. But can the ITV hotshot match Marr's style as BBC political editor?
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The Independent Online

Such is the showbiz nature of television that appointments to senior journalistic jobs are news. It is the newspapers that bestow celebrity status on broadcast news performers, while broadcast seldom reciprocates. There are many fine political editors on national newspapers, but I do not recall the appointment of any of them being reported on the BBC1 10 O'Clock News.

However, the succession of Nick Robinson to the post held by Andrew Marr as the BBC's political editor last week was widely and prominently reported in the press. Are Mr Robinson and Mr Marr of greater interest to the public than their counterparts in newspapers?

The papers - and I am afraid the serious ones are the most guilty - carry rumours that "Marr may be moving on". They speculate on the succession: "It's Kearney versus Robinson". They report the announcement: "Robinson poached from ITN". And they debate the selection. It's like reading the sports pages in the build-up to the All Blacks vs the Lions.

There are concerns about any political baggage the new person might have (Marr was touched by Labour, and dined at Chequers, while Robinson had a flirtation with the Young Conservatives). It becomes an issue whether a possible choice is a "BBC insider" or being "nicked" from the opposition. The sisterhood steps forward in the inevitable form of Polly Toynbee of The Guardian to assure us the choice of Robinson over Martha Kearney is a macho male plot. Toynbee bemoans the fact that the BBC's head of news and Kearney supporter, Helen Boaden, did not take the final decision (and appoint Kearney). Boaden then writes to the paper to say the unanimous decision was taken by a panel of herself, another woman and one man.

According to Toynbee this was a "defining moment" for the BBC. This seems a little strong for the appointment of a new political editor. But in the self-serving and mutually supportive politico-media conspiracy that is Westminster the excitement of the bar room must be shared with the public, and "I'm a political editor, get me out of the Central Lobby" must be the latest reality show.

You cannot blame Marr or Robinson for playing along with the celebrity status of the job. If you are a bit of a performer, and you have to be for the political editor's job, then you enjoy the fame and recognition and realise that you have to develop your "personality". This is particularly true if your background is in newspapers, where being extrovert is not a requirement of the job.

John Cole, with his distinctive Northern Ireland accent, had a shaky start as BBC political editor because he was incapable of being other than himself. Happily, because he was the wisest of political analysts, the public took to that self and he was a success. He was, in TV terms, a character rather than a personality. Robin Oakley, like Cole from a newspaper background, was neither. He lasted quite a while, but it never really worked.

Marr, also with a press background (he was for a while the editor of The Independent and is modest about his achievements in the role), is very clever but realised early on that it would not help to appear so. He taught himself to communicate in his new medium through skilful use of simile and his arms. Again, the public took to it, and Marr became a character.

Robinson, unlike all the predecessors above, has spent his journalistic career in broadcasting, mostly with the BBC. He does not have to learn new tricks because he has been doing television for years. Indeed he cannot adopt a new persona because he has been hired for the present one - aggressive, awkward squad, knowledgeable and very clever.

They are all very clever (to present Start the Week, as Marr does, you have to have a brain of Lord Bragg proportions) yet they are expected to have the common touch, simplify it, do it briefly, usually in the form of a contrived "chat" with the anchor in the studio. This will be a person of similar ego who considers him or herself ahead in the celebrity stakes. This person has power over the political editor standing in the open air, usually outside No 10, in that he or she can terminate the chat. "Thank you John/Robin/ Andrew/Nick, we'll leave it there." Which means alone, microphone off, reflecting on how little you have had a chance to say.

Being BBC political editor is about style not content. You are remembered for your accent or your arms, not what you said. You are asked for your interpretation of events but not your views (these are not allowed), and there is no time to explain. So you resort to performance and drama, because you must, because this is television.

So here's to you Mr Robinson.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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