Profile: Anne Robinson: Annie gets her gun

She tells like it is and now she's got the captains of industry worried. Michael Leapman reports
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The Independent Online
ANNE ROBINSON is the Jeffrey Archer of the airwaves. She is famous, consummately professional, earns pots of money - and the media world is full of people who would love to see her fall flat on her intriguingly lop-sided face.

Envy may be reprehensible, but it is the only fun some of us get. That is why we felt a frisson of excitement last week when 10 captains of industry from firms such as Ford, BT, Dixons, the AA, Airtours and Thomson Holidays held a well-publicised council of war in a London hotel to discuss ways of drawing the dragon's teeth.

All at some time scorched by Anne's fiery breath in BBC1's Watchdog, they wanted to remind us all that last month the Broadcasting Standards Commission upheld four complaints against the consumer affairs programme. They want to meet BBC top brass to discuss how she can be held in check.

How, we all wondered, can this slip of a woman, with her fading red hair, resist the combined might of Britain's boardrooms? Has she over-reached herself at last? Is the biter fatally bit?

Almost certainly not. Examination of the BSC's rulings show that for the most part it faults only the sloppy methods used by the programme to research and present its stories. They do not question the merits of its basic criticisms - mostly well-founded - of holiday firms, car and appliance manufacturers, high street retailers and the like. Even the BBC, lily-livered though it habitually is, could see where its duty lay and rallied to the defence of its star presenter.

Anne, as she read reports of the Grosvenor House summit on holiday last week, will not have felt threatened. Rather she will have been flattered by this proof that she has got under the skin of big business by regularly challenging its self-bestowed right to treat customers like sheep.

She might, too, have reflected on the curious turn of fate that has seen her, the daughter of a Liverpool schoolteacher and market trader, become a beacon of consumer rights - and, at nearly 54, an even bigger earner than some of the ephemeral Wunderkinder who flit briefly across our screens, famous for as long as it takes us to get tired of them. For her path to this apotheosis has been anything but smooth.

Leaving school, her choice was between journalism and training for the theatre. After serving time in a news agency she arrived in London in 1967 as a reporter on the Daily Mail, a 22-year-old with the world apparently at her feet.

In the Sixties, Fleet Street was notoriously overstaffed and what Anne too often found at her feet was the brass rail of one of its numerous pubs. She fell into the company of Charles Wilson, a tough-as-nails Glaswegian nine years her senior who then worked on the Mail news desk.

They wed in 1968, a marriage made not so much in heaven as in the Mucky Duck (White Swan), then the Mail's local. Quite soon things began to fall apart. Both partners are highly competitive and wanted their own career to come first.

Anne was immediately punished for her choice of husband by being forced to quit the Mail, which then had a strict no-spouses policy. She joined the Sunday Times, where her undoubted skill as a reporter was undermined by her continuing heavy drinking, only slightly moderated by the arrival in 1970 of Emma, her only child. She hired a nanny and kept working.

Not long after the birth Anne and Charles split for good. Both wanted to keep Emma and the matter reached the family court, where they were awarded shared custody after an acrimonious hearing. Charles went on to edit the Times for five years in the 1980s, and later had a brief spell as the editor of the Independent. His second marriage is to Sally O'Sullivan, another red-headed journalist.

At the Sunday Times Anne had her first taste of consumer reporting. One of the stories she worked on involved cracking the bar code used by supermarkets. But her increasingly unpredictable behaviour led to her quitting the paper in 1977.

That was a turning-point. She returned to Liverpool, gave up drinking and was hired to write a column for the Liverpool Echo; but she was not away from Fleet Street long. In 1979 she went to the Daily Mirror and within two years had her own column.

Being a featured columnist on a tabloid is not quite as easy as Private Eye's Glenda Slagg makes it look. Choice of subject matter is straightforward enough: you just zero in on the two or three main human-interest stories of the week, and express your down-to-earth, no-messing opinions. Anne's very first Mirror column presaged countless subsequent ones by featuring Princess Diana.

The crucial trick, though, is to find a distinctive tone of voice. You have to project yourself as being more astute than your readers - or else why would they bother to read what you have to say - yet, at the same time as being one of them, sharing their hopes, fears and prejudices.

Anne hit the right note from the start. And when, in the early Eighties, she began to appear on television, she quickly discovered how to translate her talent for communication to the screen. Points of View, the squib of a programme where viewers write in with their over-the-top opinions on what they see on the box, suited her exactly. She began by standing in for the more whimsical Barry Took, until she was made full-time presenter in 1988.

Her knack was to seem to conspire with viewers (she winks a lot) to undermine the self-satisfaction of programme-makers who think they know what is best for us. She brought the same quality to Watchdog which she took over in 1993, since when the weekly audience has doubled to around 8 million.

She is not television's only consumer champion. The admirable Esther Rantzen loved to expose dodgy operators and incompetent officials on That's Life, but she was in it as much for laughs as for results: too often she set her sights too low, zeroing in on small-scale fraudsters. Roger Cook did the same, never happier than when provoking a cornered victim to aim a fist at his face or his cameras.

Anne prefers to go for bigger targets, the large corporations crawling with public relations officers whose honeyed words belie their contempt for customer complaints. The Grosvenor House summit was, in that sense, the corporate equivalent of the cornered con-man's flailing fists.

When TV programmes are fronted by celebrities, it can be hard to know how much of their style and content flows from the face on the screen, and how much is imposed by the producers and researchers. Anne's colleagues on Watchdog insist that she is very much hands-on, and that the shape and tone of the programme is hers - although the producer, Helen O'Rahilly, surprisingly declined to confirm this to me for the record.

Amid all this, Anne still finds time for her weekly column, which shifted from tabloid to tabloid for ever more stratospheric fees, until she was reputed to be the highest paid woman in journalism. This is in part a tribute to her second husband, John Penrose, whom she married in 1980 when he was a colleague on the Mirror, and who is now her agent - although she does not lack bargaining skills herself.

They parted for nearly two years but have been back together for a while, owning expensive houses in London and Gloucestershire (with a garden by Rosemary Verey) as well as two Mercedes - his and hers. And she feels she can now afford to be picky over accepting work.

Early this year she gave up Points of View and the Express column. She told a Guardian interviewer that the Express had offered to renew her contract at pounds 200,000 a year, but she decided she had done it long enough.

"I've come to realise I no longer have the appetite to stand in judgement on people. I haven't the energy to worry about Glenn Hoddle's love life or Anthea Turner's love life."

Instead, she now pens what she calls "the gentle diary of a Kensington/Cirencester housewife" in the staider - and lower-paid - environment of the Saturday edition of the Times. Actually it has turned out to be not all that different from her past efforts, in that Princess Diana still looms large. Anne and John's London pad is in the vicinity of Kensington Palace Gardens, and she has joined neighbours in agitating against the Diana Memorial Garden.

She is clearly treating the issue like one of her Watchdog crusades. She phones special numbers to protest, complains about the loaded nature of the official questionnaire on the proposals and uses her column to attack the make-up of Gordon Brown's memorial committee.

She traipses to the visitor centre near the Albert Memorial where the plans are on display. Dismayed that she cannot take her dogs in she puts them in the care of security guards and then finds the centre disconcertingly "awash with foreign visitors, especially Japanese". A taste of horrors to come, no doubt, if the scheme goes ahead.

She has described her campaigning philosophy thus: "I can only say to people - be awkward ... Don't put up with second-rate treatment. All these people are only servants, and we should treat them as our servants."

All of which sounds like bad news for supporters of the Diana garden. If the concerted might of 10 captains of industry cannot dent her determination, Gordon Brown and his minions on the committee may have a less easy ride than they think.