Profile: Nicky Campbell - This Scot's got under our skin

Is the ubiquitous broadcaster a voice of the people or a pushy self-promoter? By David Aaronovitch

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Sometimes, in show business as in politics, the "how" is more important than the "what". That the former Radio 1 DJ, former TV game show host and current presenter of ITV's shoutfest Thursday Night Live, Nicky Campbell, should be invited to present some editions of Newsnight is not really so very surprising. Mr Campbell - sorry, Nicky - has been one of the great successes of the BBC's Radio 5 Live, where his phone- in has won awards for its combined accessibility and intelligence. And Newsnight has been commendably catholic in its choice of stand-ins for the main presenters - even allowing me to have a turn occasionally.

Here's how it all unfolded. On 10 March this year the Scottish Daily Record carried a story headlined "NICKY SET TO BE BIG WHEEL ON NEWSNIGHT". "An insider at the Corporation," added reporter Kathleen Morgan, "said they want Nicky to do `the full Monty' as third-string presenter behind Paxman and Wark." And for why? Because "the BBC are hoping that Nicky can lose them their reputation for stuffy and unappealing coverage". A long puff followed, revealing the huge offer that Campbell had recently turned down to do BBC Breakfast News.

But where had this story come from? Six days earlier I had been told something in confidence that I had heard rumoured in the Newsnight office for months, which was that the BBC's South Africa correspondent, Jeremy Vine, would become the third presenter. So the Daily Record piece could hardly have originated with Newsnight or the BBC News and Current Affairs operation. The most likely explanation is that Campbell, or someone acting for him, had assisted the Record with their inquiries.

Last Monday, five months later, the Guardian media pages carried an extended version of the original Daily Record piece. Once again the five Newsnight appearances were heralded as "an astonishing coup" for Campbell, one that he had earned because of his "quick wit and softened Edinburgh accent" and because "people like and trust the voice and its owner". But, revealed the Guardian, "others are queasy. Instead of feting a bold decision, they are playing it down". The BBC News press office would not agree to Campbell's being called a presenter, preferring the term "location presenter", meaning that he would not front the whole show on his own. It was clear that they thought the "Campbell in shock transfer to Newsnight" stories were over- hyped.

So now there was a row. "Friends of Mr Campbell," said the Guardian, "were furious." "Friends of"? What was meant by "friends of"? In political journalism "sources close to" indicates a press adviser or spin doctor. The weasel formulation "friends of" invariably means the man himself. Anyway, the "friend" went on to accuse BBC News of snobbishness, adding that, "Some people in the lofty current affairs department don't like this."

I don't know it, but this whole thing looks like an agent's bounce. With Sir John Birt stepping down soon, was Campbell's management tipped the wink by, say, the BBC 2 channel head, Jane Root, that she wouldn't be averse to Campbell herself, but that News and Current Affairs were the problem? Was this a softening-up exercise? Months earlier the late Jill Dando was strongly promoted by BBC 1 to present the Six o'Clock News, only for the News operation to choose Huw Edwards. There was a battle, and News won. Now, with the sometime populist Greg Dyke at the helm, was the time right for Nicky?

Campbell himself is a slightly unsettling figure. He stares, rather than looks at you, out of his publicity photos. In the flesh in the studio he is unfussy, efficient and rather cold, giving off that slightly solipsistic air that also characterises many actors. He knows his stuff, but it's hard to see what he cares about - other than his wife who, when I appeared on the phone-in with him a year or so back, he mentioned almost continually. Like many showbiz people, one senses a large, black empty spot in there somewhere.

He was born in 1961, adopted by a well-to-do Edinburgh family, and schooled at Edinburgh Academy, a prestigious private school one notch down from Tony Blair's Fettes College. From there he and several of his friends went to Aberdeen University, where they made up the backbone of the Drama Society. His particular friends were Iain Glen, the actor, and Alan Robb, also now a broadcaster. One acquaintance of that period says that they were known as "the triumvirate", "they were the cocks of the walk".

Campbell was the leader; a not ungifted actor, but apparently a bit of a bully. In 1980 he and his mates took The Physicists, by Friedrich Durrenmatt, down to the Edinburgh Fringe. A deeply serious piece, Campbell nevertheless insisted on playing the central role of the woman psychiatrist himself, done up in drag and acted in a high camp manner. This was 19 years before Mark Rylance played Cleopatra. Glen was well reviewed, Campbell was panned. Worse, a separate Fringe revue of his was picketed by gay activists for being homophobic, though Nicky's explanation was that he had been casting ironic scorn on homophobia.

After college Nicky found a billet at the commercial Radio Northsound in Aberdeen and, when he got the chance to present, excelled. He was, and is, a natural broadcaster. He's quick, has a pleasant voice, works hard at the business and interviews well. By the end of the 1980s he was a Radio 1 DJ, brought in to add a bit of intelligence to a station that still had Smashey and Nicey at the heart of its schedule. Even more remarkably, he was also now a host of an ITV schlock game show, Wheel of Fortune - the programme that first injected Carol Smillie into the frontal lobes of the nation.

Whatever the audience thought, his colleagues were ambivalent about him over at Radio 1. Several of them began to use him as a continuing target of banter, and there was a big bust-up between him and the DJ Chris Moyles. It may have been inverse snobbery aimed at a man who would say things such as "All Oasis songs are texturally monolithic". Or perhaps they just didn't like him.

Campbell's career game plan, however, was to go serious. In 1997, instead of continuing with Radio 1 and Wheel of Fortune, he went to Radio 5 Live. Within months of hosting the Nicky Campbell Show phone-in programme he was being hailed as the success story of the channel. This was a fusion of populism and seriousness, not unknown in radio: Jimmy Young, John Inverdale, Brian Hayes had all ploughed this furrow before.

It has always been much more difficult to pull off this trick on television, however. For a start, programmes tend to be one thing or the other. Campbell's own TV vehicle, Thursday Night Live, purports to cover weighty issues but is actually an unenlightening free-for-all, in which the object is to have as big a row as possible. The presenter's job essentially is that of the wrestling referee - part adjudicator and part agent provocateur. The programme has quite high ratings, but such shows come and go; Newsnight, on the other hand, is an authentic television institution. Only the Today programme and election-night coverage match it for kudos.

That's why, whatever the nature of Nicky's ambition, there are some who instantly wish to thwart it. The Labour MP Paul Flynn opined of Campbell that, "I don't think he is on a par with an intellectual like Jeremy Paxman." Flynn felt that Campbell wouldn't duff people up like Paxman.

But there are more ways than one of skinning the beast. Campbell's technique is akin to that of a more robust David Frost. He sidles up close to where the interviewee would really like to go if only he or she could, and then encourages them to go there. Only when they have made the move does he chop their legs off.

Yet the showbiz years have left their imprint. Can you imagine the following from Paxman, were he to be asked (as Campbell was) to name the best moment of his career? Campbell: "There are many. Meeting Paul McCartney was one. Doing a programme when my wife-to-be, Tina, was reading the news was one of the best. Every day is a good moment - having the privilege of talking to a microphone and reaching millions of people." Blurrgh!

And the name doesn't help. The appellation Nicky comes from the wrong side of the tracks. That's why we do not have Jerry Paxman, Kiki Wark or Jez Vine. Or, for that matter, the Jeremy Springer Show. Or, at least, not yet.

But here I have some advice for the "friends" of Nicky Campbell. Do not get caught in the war between those who want greater accessibility and those who are fighting dumbing down. Don't brief the newspapers one way or the other. Stand aloof from it all and just do the thing you do. Don't call them, they'll call you.

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