Tom Bradby seems almost too good to be true. With his square jaw and fine head of hair, the political editor of ITV stands on College Green, outside Parliament, delivering his pieces to camera with diction that comes courtesy of Sherborne public school.
His CV (with stints covering Ireland, Asia, the royals and Westminster) is the stuff of any media student's dreams; when he is not making television news he is writing critically acclaimed novels, funded by a hefty advance from an American publisher.
Having just turned 40, he has friends in high places, being the most trusted media confidant of Princes William and Harry. Then at the end of the week, Bradby heads off to domestic bliss in rural Hampshire. His living room opens out on to a swimming pool; his three young children excel at sports and his wife, who has her own jewellery design business, joins him in critiquing the plot for his next thriller. He even gets a three-day weekend.
There aren't even any dark corners in Bradby's political past. "You can look through my background with a fine-tooth comb and never find anything overtly political that I have done because I have never done anything overtly political; that is because I am not interested in politics in that way." Contrast that with BBC political editor Nick Robinson, Bradby's predecessor and for the past 18 months his chief rival, who even now gets teased over his student politics as a Young Conservative.
Bradby admits that it is quite unusual for a political journalist "not to have a coherent set of political views" but, as he tries to bring a fresh approach to the reporting of Westminster, he is determined to "remain a completely unreadable book".
Then, after an hour of talking, sitting in the temporarily unoccupied office of the ITN chief executive Mark Wood, Bradby the prolific author discloses what could amount to some of the most personal chapters of his own memoirs, should he ever choose to write them.
Far from being the flawless figure he appears on screen, he acknowledges that his dream of working as a foreign correspondent took him on a journey that left him struggling in what he terms a "psychological morass". He is also still troubled by the recollection that he allowed one of the biggest scoops of his career to slip through his fingers. And having been drawn into one of the most high-profile media trials of modern times, he feels "very uncomfortable" that Clive Goodman of the News of the World was jailed for intercepting royal phone messages, (including one that concerned Bradby's friendship with Prince William), even though he was angered by the intrusion.
Bradby is a straight talker, a quality that has won him the admiration of the management at a revitalised ITV News, just as it enamoured him to the staff at Buckingham Palace and to William and Harry. He is now working his charm in and around the Palace of Westminster. "I spend an exhaustive amount of time developing contacts - lunch, dinner, breakfast, drinks, coffee - trying to build relationships."
Not that, in a powerful role such as his, he always has to go chasing. "Within three hours of me getting a job I had a call from Gordon Brown's office asking would I like to come in for a cup of coffee. They are very clever operators. Equally Tony Blair asked me for a cup of tea on the back terrace of Downing Street. Their aim is to try to get their message across. That's what makes the job so unbelievably fascinating. You have a completely open door if you play it right."
Things have changed, he says, since he was a young producer for the former ITV political editor Michael Brunson, a time he remembers as a "slightly gentler political era". "It's more stressful than I imagined it would be. There is just a lot more aggression around in the system. The Government is more aggressive in some ways and therefore if you are going to do your job properly as a media organisation you have to be really focused."
Bradby is the son of a Royal Navy officer. He was born in Malta and began his education at a naval institution in Gibraltar before going to Sherborne and then to Edinburgh University. One would expect him to mix easily with the Old Etonian Conservative leader but less so with the Brownites. This is too simplistic, Bradby says. "My background is quite puritan and military. It's not very metropolitan. In that sense you might say I have more in common with Gordon than others." Furthermore, even though he is adamant that he does not have any party political leanings, he has described some of his early journalism on Edinburgh's The Student newspaper as "poorly argued left-wing editorials".
Bradby joined ITN as an editorial trainee in 1990 and six years later was appointed as its youngest Ireland correspondent. The experience developed his appetite for working in difficult locations but provided a steep learning curve. "I made some mistakes," he says, describing how he missed one of the big stories of the 1990s: that the IRA was to call a ceasefire. The story broke in The Observer after Brad-by had sat on it for two days.
"I was told that at lunch on a Friday. There had been a bit of disquiet [at ITN] about whether we had allowed ourselves to be played by the IRA. But I had got this from a very high-up security source. There wasn't any question that I should run it: 'Security sources predict IRA to ceasefire next week'. I allowed myself to be talked out of it by people who said they saw no evidence of that from the Republican side. I really regretted that afterwards because it was a great story. I should have run it on the Friday night; I lost my bottle a bit. Perhaps I didn't have the experience to say that's a story and I'm going to tell it."
Bradby realised his ambition of working overseas, moving with his young family to Hong Kong in 1998. Their "colonial exotic" apartment, up on the Peak, had magnificent views of Victoria Harbour and the Bank of China.
But life as ITN's Asia correspondent unravelled the following year when he was shot in the leg with a flare while covering clashes between police and demonstrators in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. He was taken to hospital where he underwent an operation before being flown to Hong Kong to recover. The whole experience left him questioning whether the risks taken by foreign correspondents could be justified.
"The idea of getting on a plane to India or China to cover a flood is thrilling, but when you're off to East Timor or wherever, it's less thrilling. I used to spend a lot of time agonising over whether this was really responsible of me. My wife would tell you I probably worry about these things a lot more than I should, and on one or two occasions I beat myself up over it.
"You convince yourself you can keep safe and you will be fine. But then you do get shot and it's not all right and it bloody hurts. In one sense I felt better after I got shot - it's happened once, it's not going to happen twice. But another voice in my head said, actually this isn't very sensible. I ended up in a bit of a psychological morass for a while." When he came back to London, Bradby was "quite sort of disillusioned and pissed off, frankly". For the first time, he considered leaving ITN.
The offer of a new role as royal correspondent was not one that immediately appealed to him. "If you have started out in life wanting to be a foreign correspondent and hang out of helicopters and then maybe one day end up as political editor, being given the royal beat didn't immediately strike me as something that I'd wanted to do." That all changed when he started to mix with royal contacts and was told secrets that had "your jaw slamming against the table". "I got really interested in the Royal Family, which I never thought I would - the whole constitutional position they are in, the way that people respond to them and what it reveals about us as a society. It was all quite compelling. It's such a unique position."
Bradby managed to find a tone that appealed to the royals, injecting humour into his coverage and showing an appreciation of their position while avoiding obsequiousness. "The one thing the Royal Family can't abide is sycophancy. They detest it. One or two of them are quite conscious of their position, but toadying they can't stand. They are perfectly willing up to a point to accept you being quite robust on air."
Though he criticised the Windsors over such matters as the Paul Burrell trial and Harry's Afrika Korps fancy dress uniform, he worked his contacts - he and the princes have mutual friends - to pull off a coup that was the envy of the rest of the royal media pack. For 10 days in 2004, Bradby was allowed to accompany Harry on his gap year project in Lesotho, where he was helping children who had lost parents to Aids.
"It was perceived as some great PR inspiration and I can't tell you how far that was from the truth. I'm not saying it didn't end up being great PR for them - of course it did - but it wasn't some great plan on their part. It was something I drove through with this mate of his who thought it would be a good idea."
Since the making of that documentary, Bradby - who had previously lunched with William and built a relationship with him - has been seen as the journalist closest to the princes. He is humble enough to emphasise that "I don't hang out with them", though he stills sees them occasionally in a social context.
It was one such casual connection - a suggestion that Bradby could lend William some broadcasting equipment - that sparked the police investigation of the interception of royal voice-mail messages, leading to Clive Goodman of the News of the World being sentenced to four months in jail.
Bradby still seems a little shocked by it all. "Where it ended up was just something I could not have ever predicted. It was pretty awkward to find myself in the middle of it but what can you do? It was obvious something was going on that was pretty wrong but I was surprised he went to prison. I felt very uncomfortable about that."
His current role as political editor, as he sees it, is to get straight to the nub of the story without slipping into the cosy language of the Westminster village. "Flim-flam" is something that Bradby wishes to avoid, he says.
Though he does not wish to be seen as a critic of the BBC, he believes he has clear advantages over his publicly funded rival, which he thinks occasionally fails to grasp the public mood. "Sometimes there seems to be the rest of the media ??? and then the BBC. They seem to live on a bit of an island by themselves."
He cites the example of the ejection from the Labour Party conference of 82-year-old activist Walter "Wolfie" Wo l fgang. "It was the first 10 minutes of our evening news that night and the BBC hadn't even mentioned it. We l, there you are: that's the difference between the organisations."
The trouncing of BBC News by ITN at the recent Royal Television Society journalism awards boosted confidence at Gray's Inn Road, and Bradby claims that the corporation's policy of stacking its chips heavily on the BBC News 24 channel has been costly. "I think it's a colossal mistake on their part to put so many eggs in the 24-hour news basket, which is not to diss 24-hour news itself which is a great thing."
The closure of the ITV News Channel was not as great a blow to staff as widely reported, he claims. "The reality is that our power and influence come from our terrestrial bulletins. You've got 15 or 20 million people watching a news bulletin in the evening, if you add it all up. By comparison the numbers watching 24-hour news are tiny."
He can't deny, though, that ITV News is not on the radar for much of the chattering classes, many of whom don't return home in time for its 6.30pm bulletin and get their current affairs fix from the BBC's 10 o'clock news. "We know this is a big ask but the next step forward for us is to say to people 'Look, have an extra glass of wine and come and watch us (at 10.30pm). We are clearer; we are classy; we cut out all the flim-flam and we will entertain you as well." In-between the story-getting, the live links from Westminster, the lunching and the breakfasting with politicos and the idyllic family weekends, Bradby still finds time to write "what I'm hoping will be my big book".
His time in Belfast inspired his debut novel Shadow Dancer, and his sometimes difficult sojourn in the Far East at least prompted the successful The Master of the Rain, set in 1920s Shanghai.
His latest work is set in New York - "it's LA Confidential meets Wall Street" - but the murkier machinations of Westminster have also left their mark. "It's a noir crime thriller ??? it has been quite informed by my experience of covering politics."
BRADBY'S PREDECESSORS: ANDY McSMITH ON ITV'S MEN AT WESTMINSTER
1986-2000 A veteran television journalist, who joined ITN in 1968, Brunson cut his teeth on the Watergate scandal as ITN correspondent in the USA from 1972 to 1977. He also served as a diplomatic correspondent in Europe. He had a personality and manner that made viewers trust him. Politicians trusted him, too, sometimes to their cost. John Major, notoriously, confided in Brunson about the trouble that he was having with three "bastards" in his Cabinet, unaware that BBC engineers were taping the conversation. Brunson also conducted some of the most revealing interviews with Margaret Thatcher after her fall. He led the ITN's award-winning coverage of the death of the Labour leader John Smith. Now living in Norfolk, he writes and still does occasional television work.
1975-1981 A political journalist for almost 30 years, Haviland's cultivated eccentricity made him a household name in the 1970s. In 1975, he had the first interview with the newly elected Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, he became political editor of The Times, but in the year that the print workers were sacked, he gave up journalism and retired to Perthshire.
2000-2002 Sergeant's appointment surprised some because he was neither young nor handsome, and he was a BBC man for most of his working life. But he brought huge experience and an air of authority to the role. He joined the BBC in 1970 after three years training as a journalist on the Liverpool Daily Post. He was a political correspondent from 1980, and was reporting live from Paris about Michael Heseltine's attempt to unseat Margaret Thatcher when she famously shoved him aside to announce that she would fight on. Having missed out on the job he wanted, as BBC political editor, he switched to ITN for two years. Later, he revived an old interest in television comedy, which was his first career choice when he left Oxford University in the mid-1960s, and appeared on Have I Got News For You.
1981-1986 Mathias's career began on the South Wales Echo in 1967. He moved to the BBC in 1970. He was with ITN for over 20 years. After being political editor he became controller, public affairs, and chief political correspondent. In 1994, he returned to his native Wales as political editor, BBC Wales. Since 2001, he has been an Electoral Commissioner, lecturer and writer.
2002-2005 Like Sergeant, Robinson was a career BBC man who did only a short stint at ITN. His slight Northern accent is due to his Macclesfield origins. Unusually for a television journalist, he spent many years behind the scenes as a producer and programme editor before his seniors realised that he ought to be centre stage. He is now back at the BBC as political editor.