Nicholas Witchell: More touchy than feely

The BBC's royal correspondent is no pal of Prince Charles. Others see him as a pint-sized prima donna. But the prickliness of the man whose taped argument with a colleague made the headlines last week is fired by a burning professionalism
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Witchell wrestled a protester to the ground and sat on her. He explained "I placed my hand over her mouth and said: 'You have made your protest so please be quiet. She later claimed I swore at her. But I would hardly do that with the mikes on."

Last week Nick Witchell came close to breaking that rule. With the microphones on he bickered for eight minutes with the Five Live presenter Richard Evans. The diminutive, redheaded Witchell had spent a long day covering the anniversary of VJ Day. The spat started when Evans recorded an introduction saying: "Er, OK, blah di blah di blah. Here's our royal correspondent Nick Witchell to tell us what happened today."

Witchell objected that the version Evans would use on air would need to contain more detail. He wanted to be asked about the significance of the occasion not the bare facts. Evans was dismissive, saying: "Well, just tell us all that then, you know." Nick Witchell declined, challenging the presenter to come up with a better question.

In BBC News everyone has heard the rumpus that ensued. Insiders say that Richard Evans made sure of that. Fellow correspondents sympathise with Witchell. One says: "If you are a presenter, the least you can do is to make sure you have an intelligent question ready for the reporter who has been working for 13 hours." Others regard Witchell's reaction as proof that he deserves his nickname "poisoned carrot".

It is not Witchell's first encounter with controversy. Earlier this year he aroused Royal displeasure by asking Prince Charles how he was feeling about his forthcoming marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles. His Majesty's muttered response was clearly audible. "I can't bear that man," he said. "I mean, he's so awful - he really is." A BBC source says that Clarence House has indicated that the Prince regrets the incident, but a Five Live phone-in revealed public sympathy was with the Prince, with approximately 1,000 votes out of 1,700 going to "Charles" over "Nick".

Witchell is aware of his reputation. At the age of 51 he refers to himself as a "grumpy old git" who does "try to be charming". A close friend says: "He knows he can be awkward and irritable. But he only lets it show when he feels colleagues have failed to reach the standard of professionalism required to do the job well."

A workaholic then? Close colleagues say Nick Witchell does not bother to deny it. He says he likes music but is not specific about what type. What leisure time he takes is spent watching news and enjoying the company of his daughters aged 11 and seven. He is separated from their mother, jewellery designer Carolyn Stephenson, whom he met at a party in 1992. The couple never married and their relationship ended in 2001. They still live close together in separate London flats. Witchell is very protective of his privacy. One colleague and frank admirer admits: "I do not know his children's names. I never met Carolyn. Actually, I didn't even know she was called Carolyn."

A BBC presenter who has worked with Witchell says: "In these days of sausage-machine news, when most television correspondents are clones, he is a breath of fresh air. He is not the showboating type. He does not wave his arms about. He is a brilliant details merchant, a real old-fashioned reporter. But he is not an easy man to be friends with."

An editor in television news confirms that. "Nick Witchell is about standards and doing things properly. There are only three reporters you really want to cover the big events for you, James Robbins, David Shukman and Nick Witchell. Not many people can write an šextended television news report well. He does it brilliantly. But he is a lone operator and if baby producers ask him idiot questions he bites their heads off."

Witchell joined the BBC in 1976 as a news trainee. He had entered Leeds University four years earlier as a law student but a sabbatical year editing the university newspaper Leeds Student took him on an assignment to Northern Ireland. He returned convinced that he wanted to be a journalist.

The BBC shipped him back to Belfast where he quickly made his mark. Veterans of the troubles were impressed when he was the first reporter to obtain conformation that Lord Mountbatten had been killed in the August 1979 IRA bombing of his yacht. Witchell went on to cover the Falklands war before returning to Television Centre to become the first presenter of the new Six O'Clock News when the programme was launched in 1984.

It was the sort of job most television reporters dream of, the big break that turns them into a household name with a salary to match their star status. But presenting did not work out for Witchell. Following the Six and five years at Breakfast News he found himself out of fashion and left the studio again. At this stage in his career Witchell shuffled between roles earning himself the additional nickname "Oddjob".

A BBC executive says: "Nick is cheesed off that he is not a big-name presenter. He did that, but it waned. Modern presenters need to be warm and cuddly. He is not."

Even his friends agree with that assessment, but there is nigh-universal agreement that he is a first-rate television reporter. The BBC seems to agree. He was the main correspondent covering the Hutton inquiry, accompanied the Prime Minister during the general election and was in Baghdad last September to cover the tragedy of Ken Bigley's abduction and murder. Previous postings have included stints in Bosnia, South Africa and Moscow as well as Northern Ireland.

Some colleagues express surprise that such a hardened newshound should want to cover the Royal Family. But Witchell applied for the job and insiders say he is regarded as a successful appointment who has brought gravitas to a job previously associated with the fluffy, celebrity-style approach of Jenny Bond. Even his critics admit Witchell has an unsurpassed talent for matching words to pictures. Colleagues suspect he does not like radio as much.

A Today programme insider says: "At the time of the Queen Mother's death, when Jenny Bond was covering the royals for television and Nick was doing radio, there was tension. He wanted to do television." The Witchell camp denies that he is hostile to the senior service. But his friends admit he dislikes the format in which he encountered Richard Evans. One says: "Most correspondents feel that two-ways are a way of treading water to fill airtime. Five Live wants to do two-ways when there is no reason to."

A senior BBC editor agrees. "The two-way interview between presenter and reporter is the laziest form of journalism. It got Andrew Gilligan into trouble. Many correspondents hate two-ways. It's part of the obsession with turning journalists into performers."

A Witchell supporter says: "Nick regrets what happened last week, but he was at the end of a tiring shift in which he had done the Radio 4 commentary as well as the report for television news. It was an unfortunate thing, but there had to be a better way of telling the story than in another futile two-way."

If it sounds implausible to claim that Nick Witchell was simply trying to improve the coverage, it is not entirely so. He is a dedicated news junkie with no hobbies. He used to dive and once had a private pilot's licence. As a young journalist he was sufficiently intrigued by the Loch Ness Monster to write a book about it and once claimed to have detected something on the loch bed.

Fifteen years ago a fellow BBC correspondent interviewed him about it for the Today programme. The questioner recalls that Witchell replied to the question "Isn't this just a way of promoting your project?" by saying: "That's a pretty stupid question." Richard Evans might be forgiven for regarding that as a foretaste of last week's events.