This is a big week for Nick Robinson. On Monday his voice returned to the airwaves as he became the newest host of the BBC’s flagship morning current affairs show Today. It is quite a transformation for a man who, a mere six months earlier, had been battling lung cancer.
I meet Robinson straight after his talk to a standing-room only audience at the Union. In person he is every bit as charismatic and lucid as he appears on television, very much the veteran broadcaster. There’s a kind of instinctive gravitas about him, an easy charisma, which perhaps comes from interviewing so many of the world’s most powerful people. One can easily see why he was labelled a ‘hack’ when at Oxford in the mid-80s; he’s as part of the establishment as the ancient walls of the building we’re sitting in, the man for whom every politician will pick up the phone. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” he remarks nostalgically to me, as he surveys the Union’s Goodman Library.
Robinson is a consummate performer, holding the audience in the palm of his hand throughout his talk. He covers free speech, debate and its threats in modern-day society. For a journalist constrained by the rules of BBC impartiality he is surprisingly forthright, critical of the relevance of identity and gender politics and dismissive of the concept of a ‘safe space.’ To argue with somebody is to accept the likelihood of offence, he believes, and a ‘safe space’ which provides cotton wool from the real world of debate is inimical to free speech. Most controversially, Robinson has little time for the Rhodes Must Fall movement. “Is it really the big issue of our age, the removal of a statue?” he asks, bemused that student debate has stooped to such seemingly petty and inconsequential levels.
Robinson’s debut at Today is but the latest stage in what has already been a remarkable career in public service broadcasting. He read PPE at Univ from 1982-85 and was awarded a 2.2 (“If I could change one thing about my time at University, I would do more work.”) Clearly quite a big name when at Oxford, Robinson boasts the accolade of Cherwell’s Pushiest Fresher of the Year 1982-3, awarded by Evan Davis when he edited the paper, then ending up as OUCA President for 1985. The first decade of his career was spent in current affairs as a producer, finally becoming a BBC Westminster correspondent in 1996. From the late 1990s he slowly became a household name, rising to the role of ITN’s political editor in 2002, before eventually taking the throne at the BBC in 2005. He is the only broadcaster to have held both roles, his political punditry casting a long shadow over a decade of broadcasting on public life.
Yet for a man so long in the tooth in political reporting, Robinson seems as energetic as ever. “You don’t do news if you don’t get an adrenalin buzz from big news,” he tells me, “the great privilege of doing any news job is that you’re there at the beginning of a story. You may be the fi rst person breaking a story; my heart goes that little bit faster, my pulse races a little bit quicker.” Robinson is renowned for bringing that combative energy to his interviewing style, an approach also popularised by Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman. Does he think this is the best way to interview politicians?
“No, not at all actually. In my fi rst few years as a TV producer we were doing these very long form, twenty or thirty minute interviews with politicians in which we were drawing out what they thought. Now days, even in an interview with the Prime Minister – which is the biggest deal you can get in my job – it will last, at most, four minutes on screen. Therefore there’s a need to be very focused, two points of questioning maximum, and sometimes to be very challenging in order to get answers.” Robinson is clearly looking forward to Today, where the interview is less about the soundbite.
“In my new job at Today there will be times when I’ve got seven minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes” – time then for Robinson to go that little bit deeper. “I sent a text to a politician this morning saying, ‘You’re saying interesting things at the moment; will you come on and discuss them?’ We’ve got to give people the space to think out loud, not to feel if they come on they’ll just get a belting.”
You can’t work in news broadcasting at the moment without noticing the waking dragon that is ITV’s News at Ten, relaunched under Tom Bradby back in October. Robinson is quick to praise Bradby’s and ITV’s efforts. “Tom has brilliantly said to ITV, ‘Let’s make an alternative.’ ITV news was always much much classier, much, much better, than a lot of people in the opinion-forming classes thought it was, but they didn’t watch it. But it was always bloody good.” Robinson knows what he’s talking about here. “I used to do Tom’s old job. One of the reasons I left was that it was quite clear that the BBC’s News at Ten got a lot more attention in terms of viewers.” Does he worry that BBC news personalities excessively dominate the agenda? “I wouldn’t call it a danger, but it’s always healthier when there’s competition. I want ITV news to do well; I want Sky News to do well. We are a better country when people have a choice and, this is about as far as I can go, it’s never good if there is a single dominant voice and there isn’t.
“There are still a couple of a million people watching ITV and that is a hell of a lot of people. So the idea that the only news people see or hear is from the BBC is untrue. So competition is good and I’m cheering him on – the better they do, the better we’ll be.”
We turn to Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘new politics’. Robinson is clearly a little sceptical, though admits the media itself should take much of the blame. He recalls, “I was in a unique position for me in fi fteen years; of watching him being elected and not working – since I was at home, unwell. And I emailed in to say ‘I think you’re judging this in a slightly out-of-date way, you’ve got to make sure you say to the audience that here is someone new.’
“So I definitely think, the big danger with the Corbyn debate is journalists not listening to the fundamentals but to the horse race. So you discuss Trident in terms of Michael Foot losing the 1983 election but really who cares what happened in 1983. Though it’s a fact worth observing because it shapes the politics of the Labour Party, it’s not actually what the public want to know.”
Here Robinson is back on familiar terrain: the importance of free debate. “What the public wants to know is what are the arguments for and against; is it a good idea or is it a terrible idea? We’ve always got to make sure that instead of reaching a conclusion fi rst, which is anybody who thinks ‘A will lose’, we’ve stood back and said, ‘Here’s a really interesting debate, here are the arguments against, here in favour.’”
But the irony perhaps to Robinson is that for a man who so stridently promotes free speech he can seem resolutely traditional and lower ‘c’ conservative. He was, after all, not only OUCA president but a keen activist in the Young Conservatives in the North West in the mid- 1980s, rising to National Vice Chairman from 1985 to 1987. His contact book reads like a Who’s Who of the good and the great, and he recollects with glee anecdotes from a 1980s Oxford alumni get-together a few weeks previously which featured “many of the big names in British life today”. He’d buy the Thick of It boxset over The West Wing, but only because he was at Univ with Armando Iannucci, its creator.
Is there a risk, then, of establishment bias in his work? Robinson tackles this issue head on, perhaps slightly wearily given the number of times he’s asked about it.
“You judge people by what they do, not by who they were or what they thought thirty years ago. If anybody raises bias, fine, tell me, give me the detail of what I have reported is inaccurate and unfair.”
“What is a mistake are people who peer into your mind. And they say they know what you really think. You don’t have a clue what I really think, how can you possibly know what I think thirty years after I took a particular set of views. Are we to think everybody thinks exactly what they used to think then? Are we to go through everybody’s views and say ‘You thought that in 1983?’”
Over a career as long as Robinson’s no broadcaster can avoid allegations of bias altogether, though, and the new Today host has had plenty of experiences with controversy. “I had a great run-in with Alex Salmond in which there was something there I didn’t say right and I apologised for that, and there was an inquiry into it in the end. I’m not frightened of saying you don’t always get it right.” Success, though, is Robinson’s ultimate vindication. “Do you think people would care about my views if they thought that I was biased? I’m the only person whose held the job of Political editor for the BBC and ITV – would they both be in favour of employing someone who was biased?”
There are reports that Robinson’s voice isn’t holding up well after his debut on Today last Monday. It was hardly a smooth first morning on the job; his co-presenter Jim Naughtie was caught on microphone swearing. But it’s a certainty Robinson will soon be back on the airwaves. Adversity is no stranger to him; he began his career still haunted by the memory of a recent tragic car accident. “It’s funny,” he laughs wryly, “you get defined by what you’ve done most recently. In a year’s time people will be probably be saying ‘that guy on the radio should really give television a go.’”