Nick Robinson: a mission to explain the world of politics

March 18, 2011

 

By Camilla Groom

Nick Robinson, one of the most well-known political journalists in Britain, was at the Frontline Club to talk about his fascinating career as part of the ‘Reflections’ series, which are in association with the BBC College of Journalism.

He chose eleven key clips that he felt best represented his career and what had inspired him, in an evening which the interviewer Vin Ray described as “a cross between ‘This is Your life’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’”.

From his first unpaid role at Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio to his current position as the BBC’s political editor, Robinson has always been involved in politics, an interest of his that started from an early age. This passion was inspired by his grandparents, who had fled from both Nazis and Communists, prompting him to feel: “Don’t ever tell me politics doesn’t matter.”

Robinson, who spoke about how he had been inspired as a child by Brian Redhead, the former presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and father of his close friend, said he did not become a journalist to ‘change the world’.

Instead he said he sees his job as “part-reporter, part-analysis, even part-sketch writer nowadays” and revealed his greatest interest in explaining the issues:

The nicest thing is when people say on the bus: ‘you really helped me to understand that’.

His ability to explain complicated issues in a simple way was demonstrated by his fifth clip: John Craven reading a script he had written for children’s news programme Newsround explaining the Black Monday market crash of 1987.

There was applause from the audience for the straightforward reporting and Robinson admitted to having spent seven hours working on the piece.

Schools rang up afterwards and asked for the script, which was great.

Challenged about his political leanings, Robinson refused to say how he had voted in the last election. “I do vote though…I’d feel bad if I didn’t,” he said adding that he didn’t think being impartial was difficult because it is ‘my job’.

His high regard for politics and basic appreciation of most politicians made the expenses scandal “a pretty painful process” to report on. “It’s not the kind of thing that motivates me” he said.

The most rewarding occasion of his career was when he was deputy editor of the BBC’s current affairs programme Panorama, and made a programme about the parents of Tim Parry, a young victim of the 1993 Warrington bomb attack.

It remains my proudest moment because 5 and a half people watched a programme on Northern Ireland

After his time on Panorama Robinson made the unusual move to the role of ‘on-air talent’ on BBC News 24, then at ITN for ITV News before moving to his current job.

He paid tribute to fellow broadcasters, including Andrew Marr who "rewrote the script" and proved you didn’t have to be "pompous to have authority”. He also praised the work of BBC colleague Matt Frei, highlighting his reporting from New Orleans and Bill Neely, of ITV News, in Haiti.

It is easy to say that anyone can tell a story, but it’s like that old football joke: the more I practice the luckier I get.

Asked about interview technique, Robinson said he never rehearsed what to say or tried to remember phrases, but always kept a prompt in front of him in case he needed it.

British politicians are so practised and competent at being interviewed that it’s hard to get genuine responses, so he counters it by trying to come up with the most original questions:

I’m trying to make it so they haven’t got the answer – because they have never heard the question.