Nick Robinson: Northern, arsey, confrontational
Nick Robinson, the BBC's Political Editor, is happy to declare that he is all of these things - with the result that in the hectic year since he stepped into Andrew Marr's shoes, he has made as big an impression. He talks to Ian Burrell to make sure the viewer doesn't feel short-changed by the political process
Monday 18 September 2006
'Gucci," says BBC political editor Nick Robinson, taking off his immense, heavy-framed bottle-tops, then lifting them up towards his eyes. "They are Gucci."
He makes the name of the Italian fashion house sound as if it is a manufacturer of advanced microscopic technology, which in this particular case may well be true. Forensic as ever, he examines his glasses for the evidence, only to exclaim: "Ooh God, the little logo's fallen off. That's not very stylish is it?"
In an industry where oversize bins are often worn for nothing more than effect, the myopic Robinson is refreshingly anti-fashion. "I'm genuinely blind. I'm not wearing them for the fun of it."
Having been the bespectacled face of BBC political coverage for the past year, Nick Robinson has just concluded what he describes as "probably the most exciting few days in politics that I've ever covered".
He was on his way home from a family sailing holiday in Devon when news first reached him that Tony Blair was facing something of a coup d'état. Robinson has not had a day off since, tracking the PM to Beirut and Jerusalem and then following him down to Brighton to face the trade union hecklers. "Quite extraordinary," is how the broadcaster describes events.
The public revelation of the schism between Prime Minister and Chancellor marks a significant moment, he believes, in the relationship between political journalists and their audiences and readers. "It feels a vindication," says Robinson. "Because for years people have said 'Why do you go on and on about this Blair and Brown thing?' and - the thing that's most galling - 'Is it really true?' I think we've found a rather definitive answer to that question."
Nick Robinson is a powerhouse - one rival describes him as "a brilliant journalist with a brilliant political mind" - and at times like this he is working around the clock. It is not uncommon to hear him on the Today programme, then see him on News 24, then hear him on Five Live, then see him on the 10 o'clock news. All in the same day. In between these broadcasts he will probably have contributed some written analysis to his blog, Nick Robinson's Newslog (a site on which he is depicted with the sort of graphic art more often found on the covers of drum'n'bass compilations). On the day we speak Robinson is killing spare time by working on a Radio 4 documentary on Gordon Brown. Somehow this father of three young children doesn't appear tired. Bubbling with energy, he intermittently lifts his feet on to his chair as he speaks, striking a pose most viewers wouldn't recognise.
To some, Nick Robinson was a controversial choice as successor to Andrew Marr last year. Columnist Polly Toynbee described him as "killer Robinson, rottweiler of the lobby" and suggested his appointment, in preference to Newsnight's Martha Kearney, was a victory for those at the BBC who favoured a macho, confrontational approach to political journalism.
Robinson rejects the idea that he is from the same "all politicians are lying bastards" school as Jeremy Paxman. If criticism was to be made of him, he says, it would be for the opposite reason, that he enjoys Westminster life. "I'm incredibly sympathetic to the political process. Politicians have got good and bad people just like journalists, doctors, teachers, and I wouldn't do this if I didn't think it was - sorry to sound bonkers - profoundly important."
He is confrontational, though, especially when he thinks he is being given the stonewall treatment by political spin doctors. Most notably, Robinson, in his former job as political editor of ITV News, provoked a furious row with New Labour during the last election after questioning its claims that the Tories were planning £35bn of public service cuts. Not only did he query the figure but he asked Tony Blair, "Can you only win this election by distorting your opponents' policies?"
Looking back on the exchange, he says it was not pre-planned. "The row with Tony Blair at the election was spontaneous and totally unexpected. It was largely because Gordon Brown forced me to get up at 6.30am in order to interview him, having already done a 17-hour day covering the Budget. I was extraordinarily bad tempered and lacking in sleep."
Perhaps, but there was a resumption of hostilities this month as Robinson accompanied the Prime Minister on his recent tour of the Middle East. Before the plane touched down, Downing Street spokesman Tom Kelly told journalists that, in the wake of the Lebanon conflict, Blair would consider it "disrespectful" if he was asked questions about the Labour leadership issue.
Robinson was already seething over what he regarded as stage management of the Prime Minister's earlier announcement that he would be standing down within a year. "It was delivered in a way to look as if it was a news opportunity for journalists but in fact there was a single camera there and all the journalists were locked outside except the man from the Press Association. The Prime Minister was effectively issuing a statement. He turned up at a school with the teachers behind him. Tony Blair did it in a way, because he's clever, he bowls up to the camera - 'Hey guys' - as if there were a bunch of journalists. There weren't any. It was a fiction. It was a video press release. He could have said anything and was not open to cross-questioning. He then goes to the Middle East and says 'Oh shucks guys, they've had a war here. It would be terribly disrespectful to ask questions.' Well, I'm paid to ask questions, that's what I'm supposed to do. Particularly at a time when there are incredibly serious allegations."
His anger rising as he speaks, Robinson says: "I react very badly to organised attempts to stop journalists asking questions."
So it came to pass that at the first news conference in Israel, ITV political editor Tom Bradby opened up with a Gordon Brown question and was told by Tony Blair that the subject was disrespectful to the hosts. Robinson, who was next up, then faced a dilemma. "The key decision was, him having very clearly signalled get your tanks off my lawn, was I going to go and park one on his lawn? I knew it was going to be uncomfortable and I knew I had to ask the question in a way that would make it very difficult for him not to answer. I did ask quite an edgy question."
Robinson noted that extraordinary allegations had been made about the Chancellor and offered Blair the opportunity to come to his aid, then teased the PM with the added words "or do you prefer silence?".
Tony Blair may not have given a lengthy response but Robinson had given his audience something to chew on. "It produced a slight intake of breath. It was clearly not welcome," he says. "What I wanted to convey to the audience was that it's a choice whether he answers questions. It's not like the weather. To use the word 'disrespectful' is like saying 'Oh it's stormy'. Whether he chooses to answer questions about Gordon Brown and about his position is a choice."
Audience response to Robinson's approach was decidedly split, however. Respondents to his blog criticised him for causing a distraction to the debate on the war-torn Middle East by obsessing over Westminster squabbling. Robinson argues that he was aware the BBC also had its Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen present and that all angles of the Blair tour would be covered. This was not, he says, an example of "RI" (reporter involvement), where the journalist makes himself part of the story just to make good telly. "I hope there isn't any gratuitous reporter involvement but one of the few tools of the job, if you like, is your ability to ask a question and to try and get round the desire of politicians not to answer it."
Nick Robinson, 42, was born in Macclesfield and attended Cheadle Hulme school in Cheshire. His interest in political journalism began when he was eight years old, and was inspired by the working life of the father of his best friend, Will Redhead. Will's dad Brian was the famous presenter of the Today programme, and not afraid to engage children in serious discussion. "In an unformed way I wanted to do his job. I just thought isn't that great, how fabulous."
Robinson was about to start a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford University when he went on a summer holiday in northern France with Will and their friend James Nelson. They were involved in a head-on car crash, which engulfed their vehicle in flames. Robinson was in the back seat and suffered severe burns but survived. Both his friends died. Until his death in 1994, Brian Redhead remained a mentor to Robinson and on one birthday gave him a copy of Tony Benn's Arguments for Socialism.
Despite the gift, Robinson's early political leanings were to the right, and he became a national chairman of the Young Conservatives in 1986, the height of Thatcherism. Briefly he was known as "Blue Robbo", a reference to Derek "Red Robbo" Robinson, a trade union firebrand of the Seventies.
A few Labourites still hold it against him - John Prescott was seen to describe the journalist as a "fucking pillock" at a press conference - but most recognise that the political landscape has been redefined over the past 20 years. Other MPs see Robinson's student politics as a valuable learning curve. "For some people they have a sense that you understand politics, you've got some grasp of their world," he says.
Robinson joined the BBC as a trainee and stayed for 15 years, initially working as a producer, climbing his way up to become deputy editor of Panorama. He became a presenter of Radio Five Live's Late Night Live and later chief political correspondent of a then fledgling News 24.
It was there that he attracted the attention of ITV News, which hired him as political editor in 2002, and where - under the guidance of editor-in-chief David Mannion - he developed his ability to communicate serious political stories in an accessible way. When the BBC poached him back, Mannion was furious, claiming the corporation had failed to recognise Robinson's talent in the first place.
Robinson is grateful for his time away from the BBC. "I'm a passionate believer in ITN and some of the people I worked with are the most inspiring people I've ever worked with. I wish it nothing but good because a large organisation like the BBC needs someone breathing down our necks and beating us regularly."
Nevertheless he now possesses the most important job in British political journalism, with an influence which makes him vulnerable to being used by parties as an uncritical conduit. Some thought that this was exactly what happened when Robinson got the scoop on David Cameron's "mini-manifesto" last month.
Surprisingly, Robinson owns up to the accusation. "I'm perfectly happy to admit to a small error there. I interviewed David Cameron without enough time to read what was in his document. I'm perfectly happy, in the spirit of blogging, to admit it. I should have done a tougher interview with him. The mistake was I did the photo-opportunity of the manifesto without giving myself long enough to go through it and think 'What's the tough question here?'. It was probably because I was pleased to have it first. Fair enough, hands up."
Robinson has high standards. He is concerned that 24-hour news has given great influence to a new breed of ubiquitous studio guests who are booked because they are regarded as good talkers. "The problem with that culture is that there's an awful lot of third-hand commentary because the airwaves have to be filled by people who pretend that they know, frankly, what they don't," says Robinson.
That makes it all the more incumbent on the BBC political editor and those journalists who are genuinely inside the loop to correctly interpret the "culture in British politics of off-the-record journalism".
He feels references to "Blairites say" and "Brownites claim" leave viewers feeling "short-changed" and says he must do more to get politicians on camera. He says the audience was also irritated by references to Charles Kennedy's alcohol problem being widely known before it was made public. "The problem was with the chatterariat or commentariat who, in an easy cliché, said it was 'Westminster's best-kept secret'. Instantly what was being said to the audience was 'We knew, you didn't, we're in some sort of conspiracy of silence.'"
What he won't accept is criticism that political journalism dwells too much on personalities at the expense of covering the issues. "I always have to defend against the charge of 'only doing personality' because it does sort of, er, matter who the Prime Minister of Britain is," he says. "Vital to politics was the personality of Tony Blair and how he would react when 9/11 happened. We can't know how Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Menzies Campbell would have reacted but we can be sure it would have been different. And that would have been a result, not of some conference or policy, but of who they are, what they feel and what makes them tick."
He acknowledges that reporters are much more visible on television than they once were and says the Chris Morris satire on TV news, The Day Today, highlighted a tendency among some reporters to act out a stereotype. "We're all prisoners of what the conventional wisdom of the day is but television has a particular disease, I think. Radio is a much more intimate, natural medium in that sense. There is a tendency in television to imitate what you think a television reporter ought to do, a gravity, straight back, that sort of thing."
Others wave their hands about. "Because Andy Marr is a great communicator and he waves his hands a lot, people think the secret to Andy Marr is that he waves his hands a lot. No it isn't. The secret is that he knows a lot, he's incredibly engaging, he's funny."
But Robinson denies any suggestion that he has had to cultivate his own personality for the cameras. "The idea that underlies this is that there was a focus group that said: 'Let's find a bald bloke who's extremely short-sighted'," he says. "If you invent a personality, it looks invented. I sound like someone who's northern and arsey, because I'm northern and arsey."
Even so there are viewers who'd like him to be given a makeover. "I get hate mail because of my glasses. I actually got one of those envelopes - I know people say the Green Ink Brigade but this actually was green crayon - saying 'You should have gone to SpecSavers'. I get [letters], incredibly well-written and articulate, saying 'I admire your coverage... [but] why do you wear those ridiculous glasses?'"
When he started working at News 24, Robinson came under pressure to ditch his specs and wear contact lenses. He resisted, just as he does when No 10 tries to stop him asking difficult questions. "Without them, I would fall over." Short-sighted Robinson may be, but he's unquestionably insightful.
The road to Robinson: 25 years of BBC Pol Eds
A newspaper journalist who took to TV like "a pig in shit" - his words - Marr had come up through The Scotsman, The Economist and The Independent, which he also edited. Something of a renaissance man, he chaired the panel of judges for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2001. As political editor, he was celebrated for his extravagant hand gestures, prominent ears and informal phrases such as "Tony Blair is not a happy bunny". He eventually decided that he preferred chairing programmes like Start the Week to the demands of 24-hour news. Now 47, he presents the AM programme on BBC1 on Sunday morning, in the slot that was once the preserve of Sir David Frost.
Oakley was less of an accomplished TV performer than either John Cole or subsequent BBC political editors. He was a newspaper journalist, a fact-gatherer and a political analyst, but with no mannerisms that the mimics could pick up on. The incoming Labour government in 1997 never had cause to complain about his journalism, but his country-squire demeanour and background on the Daily Mail and The Times led others to assume that - unlike Cole or Marr - he was a Tory, which may explain the BBC's decision to replace him. At 65, he is still an eminent TV journalist, now employed as European political editor of CNN. He also writes about horseracing.
With his broad Northern Irish accent and lived-in face, John Cole was a gift to the satirists. Private Eye ran fortnightly spoof John Cole reports with repeated use of the phrase "Hondootedly Mossis Thotcher...", and Spitting Image had a running gag featuring a John Cole puppet in a tin hat. Having trained on the Belfast Telegraph he was a skilled political observer, however, who accurately forecast the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Well into his 60s, he would run after stories with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter. He was the first BBC political journalist to become a celebrity. Now 79, he still puts in occasional appearances at Westminster.
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