This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
For three years, Nick Robinson has topped the Total Politics political journalists poll so it was about time we interviewed him. He’s a broadcaster at the top of his game, but one who is never afraid to admit his mistakes or make an off-the-cuff prediction, even if a few minutes later it turns out to be spectacularly wrong. In short, he rarely sits on the fence, which is refreshing for a broadcaster who by definition has to tread the tightrope of impartiality.
ID: You’ve been doing the job for six years. How different is it now compared to when you started as political editor?
NR: At one level, the job is different because the politics is fundamentally different. When I began, after the 2005 election, our focus was on the inevitable transition between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Political coverage was seen through the prism of the TB-GBs rather than that of the opposition, although Cameron was emerging as a pretty effective opposition leader then.
Now we’re in coalition politics. We’re in an economic crisis. We’re in a situation where Parliament matters more. I’m more regularly reporting parliamentary votes and select committees. Undoubtedly, Parliament has become more significant, for a number of reasons. Changes in rules that mean you’ve got the backbench business committee, e-petitions can be discussed and create more topical debates. These are not of the government’s choosing, or at a time of the government’s choosing, but are generally of interest to our audience. Parliament is beginning to debate the things that anger, upset, inspire our audience. And the select committees are gradually building their power. We always knew, ever since the select committee system was created in 1979, that there was a chance it would become like the American hearings. A number of committees – home affairs, Treasury, culture, media and sport – have discovered that they can be the place where bankers, the Murdoch empire, government cock-ups, border issues can be put under scrutiny.
Another big change in the six years you’ve been doing the job is the way the media operates. There’s so much more importance ascribed to the internet. Individuals can have a bit more of a voice. How has the internet changed the way you do your job?
The curious thing is that I was a very early adopter of blogging. The guy who inspired me – a guy called Giles Wilson at the BBC – thinks I was the first mainstream political blogger. I don’t know if that’s right… Anyway, I did it very early. But I’ve got a terrible confession: I’m a late adopter of Twitter. I know it matters. I know I should. As it happens, I don’t.
I monitor it occasionally. My blogs are posted by someone else, but I’m not an active user. I’m obviously getting old!
Is it fear? It’s not like a blog. Blogs used to be thought of as spontaneous, whereas, compared to Twitter, they’re not at all.
Yes. It’s largely due to – and this is a middle-aged man speaking – not quite having got my head around it. I want to do it properly. I was rather depressed about the transition from blog comments that took on an argument that I was making, or raised questions I hadn’t answered – ‘Haven’t you thought of…’ – to comments that basically said, ‘You are something ending with –er’. And, ‘You are a naked apologist’ for something. A couple of years ago it was ‘Gordon Brown’s henchman’. I’ve literally had that description… Or, ‘you’re a wicked Tory’. You just think, ‘what’s the point?’ Life’s too short. So you’re right, there’s probably a part of me thinking, ‘How would I cut out the chaff?’
What about the accountability side of the internet? A lot of blogs like to keep in touch with what the BBC is doing, and if they see a reporter doing anything they think is factually incorrect or biased, they aren’t backward in coming forward. Do you think that’s a good thing, or do people go over the top?
Oh god, people go over the top. But it’s basically a good thing. The really good thing is that it has massively increased the speed of accountability. In the days of snail mail, the danger was that by the time you’d received the letter – let alone processed it – the story in question had gone away. When Charles Kennedy resigned, a lot of people viewed it as a sort of Westminster conspiracy – we’d all known he had a drink problem and chosen not to report it. I instantly wrote a blog… First, it forced me to address that question straight on. Second, people could either say, ‘Oh, really, that is how it was’ or, ‘still not convinced’, and that changes the way you think through things. And on quite a few occasions I’ve gone on to the blog to say, “I’ve got that bit wrong. Didn’t quite get that right...”
And that doesn’t often happen with people in your position. Some would see that as a point of weakness – that they have to defend themselves against the massing hoards. You clearly don’t have that view.
Not at all. In the job you’re very conscious of two things. One, that it’s a very privileged position. Every time – and I’m now old enough and long enough in the tooth to say this – prime ministers, plural, complain, “Why do you get so much more time on telly than we do?”, it’s just a reminder of what an incredibly privileged position it is to try and boil down and summarise. Two, what we report is only as accurate and honest and fair as we can manage in the available time. With the limited amount of information we’ve got, sometimes you’re literally running – and I’m not the fittest man in the world – to Downing Street while this is going on in your head. So, of course, we’re going to make mistakes.
Do you try and script your live report in your head before you go on air? I don’t imagine too much of that is spontaneous, because if you get one word wrong in that report, you’ll have everyone onto you.
It’s absolutely not scripted, for a very good reason: people don’t know – and often find it very difficult when they move from print to broadcasting – that the length of time you’re on air changes up to the last minute. One of the reasons the live report became fashionable in television is because it’s like a flexible bit of glue between those packages that come in, some of them live. So if you script it, frankly, you just cock it up.
It’s not just dangerous for the spontaneity, but for the opportunity to offer opinion. When I interviewed Adam Boulton, he said there was a lot more opinion creeping into news reporting. If you’re doing live two-ways, it seems almost inevitable.
It depends what you mean by opinion. There’s more comment and analysis than there was. Sometimes I have to dig out old reports, and they’re a reminder of how very straight reporting was 20 years ago. Occasionally people come along and change things. John Cole and Michael Brunson did it, and then Andy Marr. They rewrote the rules, and it became partly commentary, partly sketch and partly reporting. It’s not opinion that says, ‘My view on Europe is A, and I’m now going to try and persuade you’. It is comment and analysis that says, ‘I think that this hides the fact that the prime minister hasn’t got an answer to A’ or, ‘I think the Labour Party is struggling to find the resolution to B’.
What it isn’t – and this is very important – is what Fox News has. If it hadn’t been for the hacking saga, or the withdrawal of the bid for BSkyB, we’d possibly be having an interesting debate about whether there’s a role in television news for opinionated journalism. Newspaper journalists do it, so why shouldn’t TV journalists express an opinion? James Murdoch raised a perfectly interesting argument way before all this trouble: ‘Hold on, shall we not just let people do what they like and let the consumer decide?’ It’s an interesting point of view. People say we don’t have Fox TV here, but it’s happening with things such as Press TV, Iranian-sponsored broadcasting. Lots of young Muslims are watching a very partial view. With my remote control, I can pick Chinese broadcasting, Russian, French, Iranian-backed broadcasting… It’s happening through government sponsors rather than through Fox. I don’t think the BBC, given that it gets licence fee-payers’ money, could ever justify having an opinion. But I’m pretty relaxed about other people doing it, as long as it’s clear that’s what they’re doing.
Have you ever finished a live two-way and thought, ‘Christ I really fucked that up’?
Oh God, yeah. Memorably, I apologised for it. When Peter Mandelson came back…
I knew you were going to say that. My jaw dropped when you said that.
I’m going to confess now. I can hear the BBC press officer saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”… Don’t worry, I’m sure. It’s a really interesting example of how this can happen, but hopefully it’s rare enough to show that I’ve not lost my marbles yet. When Peter Mandelson returned to government it was a huge, dramatic moment. I did a report and had, in a sense, assembled all the reasons why Gordon Brown might have wanted him back, but then thought, “I haven’t captured why someone might be horrified at bringing him back.” He’d resigned twice and he was a magnet for criticism. You see how that phrase ‘magnet for criticism’ instantly came to mind? I’m pacing around Downing Street, trying to come up with a phrase. And what sprang to mind was “Peter Mandelson attracts trouble in the way bees are attracted to honey”. And then I found myself in the delirium at the end of a long day saying, “Bees aren’t attracted to honey, they make honey. You’re talking nonsense.” I don’t know if you ever have that conversation with yourself…?
I do, every night when I’m on air.
Having said, “I was talking crap”, for some reason the metaphor “flies attracted to manure” came out of my mouth. Literally, the second I said it, I thought – I’m sure you can put the stars in the appropriate place – “My God, I’m comparing a new government minister with shit. This is not good.” The first thing I did was text my bosses, and Lord Mandelson himself, to say, “I know, it was a bad choice of phrase, and I shouldn’t have done it.” And then we apologised.
And his response was?
I’m probably not at liberty to say… I got a fairly arch response, saying that he’d been informed about it and he hadn’t seen it himself… but actually he was quite relaxed about it. A man complained to the BBC about this in writing, and kept asking for me to be sacked. And we kept saying, “No, he’s apologised – and to the person in question, who seems satisfied by the apology.” But through the bizarre system of complaints that we sometimes operate here, we had to take this through enormous numbers of bureaucratic procedures.
Does it irritate you that, even now – 25 years after university – whenever someone wants to have a go at you, they bring up the fact you were involved with the Conservative Party?
It irritates me. For God’s sake, if you don’t like my reporting, give me some specifics. Tell me what it is that’s unfair, that hasn’t been reported when it should have been. We can deal with that. But it doesn’t ever come. There’s just generalised abuse. It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘you’re bald and speccie’. Yeah, fine. The irritation is mostly just because it’s a bit lazy. We all know that lots of people with prominent positions in broadcasting had previous political views.
What do you make of The Impressionists sketches about you running away from No 10?
I have to watch it from behind the sofa. My kids think it’s hilarious.
You do know that one year Children in Need is going to get you to do it for real.
Well, yes there’s a story in that. What’s both agonising and entertaining is that the impressionist has got my intonation so brilliantly, that it’s agony when it’s played back. My kids keep saying, “That’s how you use your hands, dad!” So far, it’s been kind.
Tom Watson hasn’t been very kind about you. I suppose you’ve seen what he said on his blog, about kissing Andy Coulson’s arse… ?
I’m not too bothered. When he had his confrontation with James Murdoch at the select committee the other day, some people came up to me and said, “Oh, that was strong.” I was very clear as to why he’s angry. He’s angry with anyone who isn’t as angry as he is. That’s life. The specific point is anybody in my sort of job, at any time, has to build a day-to-day, if not an hour-to-hour, working relationship with whoever is the prime minister’s press spokesperson, or director of communications, or whatever their job title is. It’s naive to think anything else, which is why, of course, there’s a role for different sorts of journalists. I was a producer for ten years before I started reporting, and three of those were at Panorama. There were things that Panorama could and couldn’t do that a daily reporter – who’s got to ring the next day and ask a new question, ask for an interview, or get some help or advice – was going to find harder. Panorama did pretty well on the questions front. Did it do as well as The Guardian and Nick Davies? No, but did anybody? No. Hats off to The Guardian. Bloody good piece of work.
You’ve done six years as a political editor, you’ve done a stint on Newsnight, and a stint on the Today programme. What do you see yourself doing next?
I don’t know, and I can’t know… I’ve got a nice job at the moment, so I’ll just carry on doing that.
How much does your team miss Laura Kuenssberg? She made an impact, didn’t she?
Laura’s one of the great journalists of her generation. She’s clever, thoughtful and charismatic. Hats off to her, she did really well. I went to ITV and had a brilliant time. She’s already making an impact on there. She’s a loss, but it’s good for her.
You’re quite a male team, aren’t you?
At the very top, we are: myself, James [Landale], my deputy, and Norman Smith, now chief political correspondent. But there are lots of very good women under that, whether it’s Carole Walker or Vicki Young, for example. Reeta Chakrabarti was on the team and moved on. Jo Coburn’s gone to work for Andrew Neil.
When you get something very wrong, like the David Miliband call, how much do you reflect on it?
I was furious with myself, although I jokingly said that I blame my mum. Just to remind readers, this is when I name-checked the wrong Miliband. At least I got right that it was a Miliband winning the Labour leadership election. Because I don’t do the BBC News Channel that often, I’d completely forgotten that I would be on air before the result. I was thinking, “How do I turn this into a report for the night?” In addition, because the conference was in Manchester and I’m from the area, I decided to have a nice long brunch with my mum and kept forgetting that I ought to mug up on the arithmetic of the Labour leadership college. I mugged up too quickly. I won’t tell you who was to blame. “If David passes this threshold, he’s in…”, but it was a threshold that took no account of turnout. I hate calling something like that wrong, but interestingly – this sounds like I’m trying to claim credit for it, and I’m not – as soon as the result was called I said, “Look” – I can’t remember the phrase used – but I said, “I’ve got egg on my face.”
In this age of transparency, do you think the lobby system for journalists is still defensible? Is it going to last much longer?
Although I’m almost a veteran of the lobby, I just find the whole debate about the system of reporting in Westminster terribly anal, self-obsessed, tedium. There was a big scandal, and Michael Cockerell, to his enormous credit wrote a book about the lobby system in the early 80s. There’s basically a conspiracy of secrecy, a secret briefing, the very existence of which was an offence against this closed shop to reveal. It could be used to trash a minister’s reputation without anybody ever telling the public where it stemmed from. This just isn’t the case any more. There is now – and I think Steve Field, the government spokesman, will forgive me if I say this – a rather work-a-day, run-through of lines to take twice a day, one of which is open to people and one of which, at the top of the House of Commons, isn’t. It’s on-the-record, and usually tweeted or blogged pretty quickly. Frankly, I can’t see what the fuss is about.
The fuss is still about newspapers saying, ‘A source close to X said that Y is a tosser.’
But that’s different. There’s a question about the culture of off-the-record journalism, which may have had its long historical roots in the notion of the lobby. There’s a question whether we should, as they do in the United States, more routinely demand that people put their names to quotes. If you want to slag somebody off, why can’t you just say it? But I don’t actually think that’s about the rules of the lobby. In the end, that will only come because someone does it and other people feel pressured to follow. It’s a bit like correction columns or other innovations you get in the media, where someone says, “We’re making a break here. We’re going to be more open about this.”
There’s the issue, in all journalism, all over the world, of being able to have a private conversation with a source, who informs you broadly, that never becomes a quote. With the routine and rather lazy “a Tory MP”, or, worst still, “a senior Tory”, I often ask to people why they’re being so damn cautious. Unless you say this on tape or camera to me, it is almost valueless.