Michael Crick: 'Cuts are hurting Newsnight. The BBC lacks can-do spirit'

The Monday Interview: As he begins his role as Channel 4's face of politics, Michael Crick tells Ian Burrell why he had to leave Paxman & co after 19 years

Ian Burrell
Monday 19 September 2011 00:00

People go to great lengths to avoid Michael Crick. There was the time when the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, stayed on his helicopter after the irreverent reporter turned up in the BBC chopper in hot pursuit. Another when Jeffery Archer's minders tried to keep Crick out of an event at Conservative Central Office. Archer hissed at the camera: "You wait till I'm Mayor. You'll find out how tough I am."

Crick is the master of the political ambush, adept at puncturing pomposity with a pointed question and making a mockery of a carefully orchestrated photo opportunity or press launch. Peter Mandelson once tried to throw him off, but couldn't escape the taunting words: "Will you be telling any lies today, Mr Mandelson?" For party apparatchiks and political minders, Crick's presence is the source of deep discomfort, his on-camera barbs potentially more damaging than a well-aimed egg or foam pie.

Earlier this year, Crick's then employers at the BBC joined those who preferred to keep their distance from him. Under pressure to quit his role as Newsnight's political editor, Crick jumped ship to the rival Channel 4 News, and is just starting his new job. He spent 21 years at the BBC but clearly he is not sorry to go.

"Things got a bit difficult for me on Newsnight at the end," Crick says, sitting on a park bench overlooking the Thames. "I was 19 years on Newsnight and 18 of them were extremely happy and then towards the end, about a year ago, they made it clear to me that they wanted me to stop being the political editor and do another job, which was ill-defined. They sort of said it would involve politics but they wanted to bring in somebody else as political editor and I wasn't very happy with that, to put it mildly."

As a founder member of Channel 4 News in 1982, Crick likes to think he will benefit from going back to his roots. "I think this move will rejuvenate me. It will reinvigorate me. It's where I developed my style as a reporter back in the '80s."

Although he really made his name on Newsnight, Crick never felt like a BBC person. "I've always thought of myself as an ITN journalist and in my 21 years at the BBC I always had to stop myself saying this to people," he sniffs. "There's an ITN spirit about work which is different from the BBC. The ITN spirit is everything's possible, there's much more can-do-ism, much more of a team spirit about the place. Whereas in the BBC people tend to think of reasons why things shouldn't be done."

Criticism around Newsnight has been growing. The audience was more than 1 million as recently as 2008 but in 2011 that has more than halved to about 450,000. Media commentators have referred to the programme "losing its way". Crick says: "It's going through a difficult period, undoubtedly. It's partly because the BBC as a whole is going through a difficult period. We have had years and years of cuts – I'm talking as if I'm still there – and the BBC is facing another five or six years of 20 per cent cuts. Newsnight is undoubtedly going to be affected by further cuts so that means a difficult climate."

He claims the programme's foreign coverage had suffered. "In those circumstances they are trying to squeeze more and more out of the staff and use more and more non-Newsnight people, do more studio stuff and less filmed stuff, less foreign affairs. Life has become very, very difficult."

Crick, who has started his new job by covering the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, also makes a heart-felt attack on the organising of the BBC news archive, complaining that important news footage is being discarded rather than stored digitally for future journalistic or academic use. "The BBC's news and current affairs archive was a scandal. I feel so strongly about it. Essentially what the BBC does is keep what we call the cut story, in other words what has gone out." He says this could amount to only six seconds of an interview shot with a government minister. "There are so many events where a lot of material is shot and it gets junked within a week or two. Anybody making a documentary is going to get a lot more material out of the ITN archive than the BBC one."

Crick says he raised the matter with the BBC director-general, Mark Thompson, and the director of news, Helen Boaden. "Nothing ever happened about it. Day after day, material that is shot is thrown away and in a digital world it ought to be able to keep a lot more of this stuff than ever. It means history is still written through the newspapers and books rather than through television and radio output. One way to remedy this would be in the next Broadcasting Act to put a copyright obligation on all broadcasters to lodge one digital copy of their output with all the six copyright libraries in the same way as newspapers and book publishers have to do."

Crick argues that the 24-hour news cycle has created further difficulties for a late night news programme, although anyone who suggests it should be axed is "mad".

As the Channel 4 News political correspondent, Crick takes a more junior title than at Newsnight, playing second fiddle to the longstanding political editor, Gary Gibbon. "Gary is the No 1, he's the boss – I'm a huge admirer of his work and get on well with him," Crick says, with a deference he rarely shows to politicians. "I'm not angling for his job, put it this way." Crick will be encouraged to make mischief. "They want me to be cheeky and abrasive and making jokes."

His appointment at Channel 4 is timely, coinciding with the party conference season. But his ambushes are "a lot harder now", he says. "You are much more likely to hear them say, 'This event is pooled' – in other words there is only one camera, and reporters aren't allowed in. And there are a lot more journalists doing that style of television reporting so [the politicians] are more used to it."

He has to plan carefully. "There's a great art to door-stepping which I have learned some of. It's also partly timing. You have got to get the question just at the right moment, slightly ahead of everybody else, a short question no more than about six words if you can think of it, and it's got to sum up the story."

His finest execution of the ploy was a sting on Iain Duncan Smith after the then Tory leader had just made his famous "The quiet man is here to stay" speech, and then held a press conference at which he refused to take questions. Crick followed him to an event at the Ivy restaurant in London where, at the suggestion of his sound engineer, he bellowed at the aloof IDS: "Aren't you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?"

To some on the right, the Mancunian Crick is a relentless baiter of the Tories. But asked about the current state of politics, he says: "I think the Coalition is working rather well" and expresses admiration for the high level of activity and radical agendas of most government departments. "I think Cameron is so far turning out to be quite a good prime minister and I think he enjoys the job."

Crick praises the Downing Street spin doctor, Craig Oliver (who he did not know closely when Oliver worked at the BBC), as "more effective" than Andy Coulson, whose influence Crick links to the under-reporting of the phone hacking scandal by Westminster-based journalists. "I think the British journalistic community as a whole was reluctant to touch the hacking story, particularly the political journalists," Crick says. "I think this was because they didn't want to piss off Andy Coulson. If you were taking on the story and taking on Coulson, the danger was that you would lose all your access and they would treat you much more frostily."

Crick is, by his own admission, "old-fashioned" and would never dream of going on air without a tie. "It makes me feel more professional and more comfortable. There was a time when you could get sacked for not wearing a tie on screen. It won't be long now before you will get sacked if you do wear a tie on screen," he harrumphs. Crick's neckwear will allow him to "bring a bit of colour in" to his appearance, although he can't "afford" to compete with new colleague Jon Snow, who likes to shop at Duchamp.

Despite an instinct for dramatic timing, Crick is less the on-camera dandy, and more the parliamentary swot, obsessed with the history of politics as much as with contemporary Westminster events. "I'm going to look like a complete anorak. Well, I am a complete anorak."

In conference season, politicians would prefer that this anorak was adorned with fluorescent safety stripes. The Labour Party even jeopardised his entry to its conference by sending him a pass with his old job title at Newsnight printed on it. You don't get rid of him that easily.

I want more women like Fiona Bruce, says Patten

* BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten has called for more women on radio and television. The former Tory chairman said there were "some good ones", singling out Fiona Bruce and radio presenters Sarah Montague and Martha Kearney, but added that there "should be more". In an interview with The Observer, he said: "I'm 67 and I'm married to a charming and beautiful 66-year-old, and I would be delighted if she was the face of anything on television. We should have more women on radio and television." He said of Ms Bruce: "I saw her programme on royal palaces, which she wrote as well as presented, and I thought she was terrific." Former newsreader Anna Ford has criticised how older male presenters are still on screen while older women are not, while Fern Britton has claimed women have a "natural end" to their screen careers.

A Life in Brief

Born 21 May 1958

Education Manchester Grammar School, before gaining a first in PPE at New College, Oxford. Was also head of the Student Union.

Career Started as a news trainee at ITN in 1980 before moving to Channel 4 News in 1982 as Washington correspondent. After a stint on the BBC's Panorama he became a reporter for Newsnight in 1992. Announced move back to Channel 4 News as political correspondent this summer. Has written several political biographies, his subjects including Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard and Jeffrey Archer. An avid Manchester United fan, he has written several books on the club and helped to organise Shareholders United Against Murdoch.

Family Has a daughter, Isabel, four, with his partner, Lucy Hetherington. He has an older daughter, Catherine, from a previous marriage.

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