Nick Robinson on Live from Downing Street
It is a sodden autumnal Saturday in rainy Durham. I am sat in a regal-looking mahogany chamber in the Town Hall with Nick Robinson, of BBC News fame, who is here to discuss and promote his new book, Live from Downing Street. It is surreal to see him in the flesh and not a collection of flesh-coloured pixels on a television screen, although his distinctive Gucci glasses remain reassuringly in place and his bald head is equally as shiny. According to a hastened search internet, the newly released book, which Robinson admits has long been in the works, serves as an account of his career so far as well as a history of political journalism, from the Eighteenth Century to 2012, a journey along which government censorship in the UK has largely been eradicated and the rise of social media has meant instantaneous access to current affairs.
Robinson’s foremost motivation for writing this history of political journalism, he tells me, is one of the questions he is most regularly asked. Any regular viewer will recognise the amount of time he spends outside Number 10, often looking slightly disgruntled at torrential rain, which even now is violently hammering the casements of the Town Hall as we talk, or icy urban winds. He confesses that he often feels like a “foreign correspondent to Westminster”, deprived of the luxury of a studio and exposed to the elements as he tries to recount the day’s events in the capital’s political environs. Why on earth would he stand around outside, waiting for a slot on the News at Ten? The answer is abrupt, seemingly obvious, and the basis of his new book: “because I can”.
Robinson will later be hurried away to conduct a sound check for a talk outlining his new book in the majestic main hall, surrounded by stained glass, heraldic symbols and oil paintings. In this talk, he will recount the often bizarre attempts of politicians in the far and not-so-distant to influence the media in their favour and the rules which prevented the public from being made aware of current affairs.
An example Robinson conjures up is that of the Suez Crisis. At the time, a fourteen-day rule was in place, a compulsory time lag which meant that anything recently debated in parliament could not be reported. The crisis was escalating at increasing pace, and yet the panel of Any Questions?, a stalwart of BBC current affairs radio broadcasting, was discussing whether carpets were deemed a necessity or a luxury in the modern home of 1956, something which seems completely surreal in modern Britain, in which there we are supplied with an uninterrupted feed of information. An attempt to divert conversation towards the ongoing crisis resulted in the plug being pulled, and the radiowaves were silenced. Eight years later, Harold Wilson attempted to reschedule the time at which Steptoe and Son would be broadcast on election day, trying to prevent the working man, Labour’s key demographic, from staying in to watch instead of going out to vote after work, and, remarkably, the Director General had the programme postponed.
Even as we speak, the issue of government influence in the media is being questioned by the Leveson enquiry, and a plethora of senior political and media figures have given evidence. Prime Minister David Cameron has drawn criticism regarding his close relationship with former News International CEO, Rebekah Brooks, who bemoaned his lamentable grasp of text-speak whilst under oath, and the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
As the Political Editor at BBC News, Robinson is bound to want greater press freedom. He relates an experience earlier in his career in which Peter Mandelson, the key architect of Labour’s rebranding and landslide 1997 election campaign, was baiting for his blood after he labelled Clare Short and Tony Blair as a “warring couple, keeping together for the sake of the children” and attempted to shut the story down and paper over the cracks in the politician’s erring relationship. The BBC allowed Robinson on the radio despite Mandelson’s threat to end his career, which he saw as a victory for unbiased reportage.
In contrast to the cut-throat drama of Westminster, Robinson informs the audience of a more light-hearted experience, which occurred whilst interviewing George Mitchell, a former US senator, in his own house. As a serious and pivotal question was on the tip of his tongue, he heard a rattling from upstairs and discovered that his children had snapped off their door handle, locking themselves into one of the rooms of the house and unwittingly sabotaging the interview, which he will forever label the “Daddy, we’re locked in” interview.
The central message Robinson is seeking to portray in both his book and in conversation with him in the aforementioned regal-looking chamber is that the preservation of impartiality and removal of bias is pivotal in political and current affairs broadcasting. He admits this is challenging. The country is reeling in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and Newsnight’s apparent failings to address the allegations. Despite this, it should be a goal for news coverage to achieve as great an impartiality as possible.
He has never lost the view that politics is of vital importance: he has his Jewish refugee grandparents to thank for that, who fled both the Holocaust and the rise to power of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. For Robinson, engagement in the democratic process means that we should question and challenge the policy decisions and foundational beliefs of senior politicians. Perhaps Live from Downing Street, which stresses the importance not only of the media’s ability to report current affairs, but also that of politics itself, could teach the masses, disaffected with party and Westminster politics, a thing or two.