I'm Anne Robinson, and no messing

Now here's a straight-thinking woman with a career strategy: 'My tip is that everyone should aim for a million a year.' It seems to work all right for her. But who knows why?
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Anne Robinson has three jobs, two careers and one very short temper. She refuses to be paid "crap money" and last week moved her extremely well paid column to The Express. This week she launches a new series on BBC 1, called Weekend Watchdog. The dual career is booming.

So is she the highest-paid female journalist in Britain? "I hope so," she announces. "What surprises me about journalists is how fearless they are in pursuit of the truth and how pathetic they are when it comes to negotiating a decent deal for themselves. My absolute rule in life is not to let anyone have the deeds to your plantation. It means that you have more than one job - that suits me fine - and therefore you are always in the position to walk away."

She is less forthright when it comes to putting a figure on her earnings. "My tip is that everyone should aim for a million a year." Has she achieved this? "Hmm. I don't know about this year. You'll have to ask Johnny."

This is Johnny Penrose - fellow journalist, husband and deal-maker - but he is not telling, either. There are confidentiality agreements, exclusivity deals, golden hellos and after-dinner speeches (at pounds 5,000 to pounds 7,000 a go).

Her column has appeared in one place or another (the Daily Mirror, Today, The Sun and now The Express) since 1982, and is said to be a goldmine. Johnny nods: "She is the highest-paid columnist on Fleet Street. That is indisputable." He still won't give a figure, though. "Let's put it this way, Annie has been said to have been paid pounds 250,000 by The Sun and, while not confirming that figure, she would not have suffered by moving to The Express."

These are extraordinary sums, and it is somehow fitting that the woman who put the growl back into Watchdog should command them. She does not flaunt her money, nor does she hide it. In the driveway at their country home in a tiny village in Gloucestershire sit two identical grey Mercedes. "Johnny calls them hers and hers," she says. There is also a home in Kensington. She likes not having a mortgage, wearing Armani and Donna Karan, having her hair coiffed several times a week.

"Whether we like it or not - and whatever The Guardian or The Independent think - I believe that women's greatest strength is in their earning power. That gives them their freedom. The freedom of the purse is the greatest freedom. It allows them to be treated properly. That might seem crude to you, and it might seem that there are nicer ways to go about it, but I'm a pragmatic person and it seems to me quite a good way.

"I do despair of some of our sisters because I don't think they operate in a businesslike way. I don't think they are ruthless enough. I don't think they are caring enough about themselves. You have to go to the hairdressers, you have to have a manicure. I mean, the guys always manage to have time to play squash. I am very serious about people putting value on themselves."

This comes partly from her Liverpool roots. Her mother was a career woman who made the family fortune in chicken trading. "She was quite a tricky customer. I often say that Bob Maxwell seemed easy to deal with because of my mother, who was also part-monster/part-magic. But one of the great things she did do was that every day she told me that I was terrific and that I could do anything."

The Daily Mail was not so convinced when she joined as a reporter in 1968. The chief sub-editor was more interested in her mini-skirt than her copy. "The night news editor would rather get one of his lads out of bed to cover a story rather than give it to me. I thought to myself: one has got to get up the ladder here in order to get treated properly."

She has plenty of other such examples, which she relays with relish.

"The point of all this is that it didn't occur to me at any of these points that I was a victim," she says. She believes women should be devious if necessary, and never whinge. "I didn't cry or have bad times of the month," she says. "You know, I think I was really given a column because I was a known quantity - they were terrified of the awful thought of some unbalanced woman being hired who didn't suit them."

She was number three at the Daily Mirror, and the fact that she was female and occasionally edited a national newspaper made news. "I started getting the gigs on television simply because there was no other crumpet at that level," she says. Then one day she splashed on a royal story, and the next thing her name was removed from the editing rota.

"I asked why, and this man said to me, 'Blossom, you do some more telly and concentrate on your column. That's what you're good at.' I mean, Blossom, really! I thought, all right, I will!" She found out much later that the palace had complained about the splash and, in an aside, she notes that the "Blossom" man is now jobless.

The thread that runs through all her work is that the consumer comes first. She loathes what she calls victim journalism, whether on Watchdog or as practised at The Sun with endless spreads on Dunblane long after the fact. Watchdog now goes after heads of companies - "I want to shame them" - and does not bother with tortuously sad tales involving double- glazing salesmen. The no-victim formula has worked, with viewing figures rising 3 million to 8.5 million over the past several years. And now there will be more, with Weekend Watchdog concentrating on the travel and leisure industries.

Anne Robinson wants the heads of companies to be terrified of her. She wants to teach every one of us to be just as terrifying. "I think it's a question of saying, almost under your breath, 'My name is Anne Robinson and I am a trouble-maker.' We all know the letter that comes in that you just shouldn't ignore."

Yes, but how is such a letter phrased? "It is 'don't fuck with me', isn't it? It doesn't have threats, it is just 'don't mess with me'."

Many people in many newsrooms have learnt not to mess with her, and she admits to being short-fused and intolerant. "I expect people do call me names behind my back. I'm described as demanding. I just want to get it right: you can't waste too much time."

Her editor at Watchdog, Steve Anderson, describes her as demanding and difficult, but adds that he is her number one fan. "More often than not she is right." Another example is her copy, which is off-limits to sub- editors. "I am the one being paid and my name is there on it. Why would I possibly imagine a sub had a better idea?"

But what is it that makes her ideas so much better? Richard Addis, editor of The Express, says that she is tough and unpredictable, and that people trust her. Her former editor at the Daily Mirror and Today, Richard Stott, says she has a natural appeal.

What does Anne Robinson think? Why is she Britain's best-paid columnist? "Maybe it's just that I asked for the money." But others ask and do not receive. She shrugs. "I'm a good gig. I write a readable, interesting column."

But many others do that too, and are not so special. "Am I special?" she asks in a tiny voice. Then her tone changes drastically. "I don't know! That is just how I do it. That's how I operate."

Richard Stott has a better answer: "Anne is very good at cutting through the crap, frankly. She can present something in a no-nonsense way so people say, 'But that is exactly how I feel.' That is the real secret of a great columnist."

But she also has lots of critics, I say. "Does she?" he asks. "Just jealous, I suspect"n

Weekend Watchdog starts at 7pm on BBC1 this Friday.