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Here’s to you Mr Robinson

2011 July 17
by Paul Vallely

One of the most striking images of an image-packed week came from the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, when he described Gordon Brown’s House of Commons denunciation of the Murdoch empire as “more a roar of pain and anger” than a speech. It resonated because of the vivid picture it conjured of a mighty beast in torment. But there was also something rather odd about it.

Certainly Robinson did not go on to deploy the same powerful linguistic skills in reporting what he described as the “fair points” the former prime minister had made. Indeed he minimised them. And there was something rather mocking about the way he said that Brown had “tried very, very hard to make friends” with Murdoch’s newspapers. “My point is not to condemn Gordon Brown,” he continued, expansively, “he only did what Tony Blair had done and what David Cameron went on to do”.

Gordon Brown is a complex man, who combines much light and not a little darkness, but there was little doubting the titanic scale of his rage and his pain at the way his young son’s illness had been turned into circulation fodder for The Sun. Yet Robinson’s tone was flip, as if Brown was merely a schoolboy settling a few playground scores.

Perhaps I was over-reacting, I thought, until I saw the same sentiment expressed repeatedly on Twitter. Robinson was making light of a major scandal, it was said. He was taking a “side-swipe” at Brown’s wife Sarah in a “thinly-veiled diversion tactic for No 10”. And he’d suggested the Browns were feigning their upset which was “really sick, Tory boy,” one tweeter said.  The Labour MP Tom Watson, who made much of the running on the phone-hacking scandal, even said in an interview: “Frankly I think the BBC should probably take a look at itself. I don’t think their political journalists took this story seriously when the investigation was taking place in parliament. I think Nick Robinson, the most powerful political editor in the land, missed the story of his life.”

The accusation that Nick Robinson has a bias towards the Conservative party is hardly new. When he was appointed BBC political editor in 2005 much was made of the fact that at Oxford he was president of the university Conservative Association and later was national chairman of the Young Conservatives in the Thatcher era. When the general election came in 2010 there was internet moaning that his Tory partiality was now showing.

This always seemed to me to be over-stated, as did the protests that he showed his political colours when he tore up an anti-war/anti-cuts placard that a protestor was holding up behind him during one outside broadcast. That was professional frustration, or irritation at having been made to look foolish live on air, not political prejudice. On Friday he joined the strike alongside other BBC journalists protesting against compulsory redundancies, which is hardly the act of a hardline Conservative.

Moreover Robinson has suffered from projected perceptions. A friend once asked him, after scrutinising a photograph of Gordon Brown as he waited to be interviewed by Robinson, “Do you really make him feel sick? Or had he just swallowed a wasp?” Robinson replied: “Football is always the subject of my small talk with Gordon Brown before kick-off in our big match.”  Brown’s face was contorted because Robinson had asked him a really difficult question – whether he thought Real Madrid might make a big-money move to buy Wayne Rooney. “He knows I’m a Manchester United fan,” Robinson later wrote, “and I know he has a hotline to Sir Alex Ferguson.”

Nick Robinson is an excellent journalist, well-informed, insightful, and almost unflappable on air. It didn’t bother me that Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron’s chief of staff, reportedly telephoned Robinson to ask what he thought of the top BBC man Craig Oliver before he was appointed as Downing Street’s communications chief, after the beleaguered ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as Cameron’s chief spin doctor. That’s how networking works.

But Robinson does sometimes cross the line between analysis and commentary. Analysis reads the runes of a political situation from a basis of superior knowledge and then shares that with the rest of us. That is entirely appropriate from a public service broadcaster with a statutory obligation for even-handedness. Commentary involves expressing an opinion from a political perspective, something which is more appropriately done by newspapers, which wear their political heart on their sleeve, or on television in a panel discussion which can include countervailing balances of opinion.

The comments Nick Robinson makes may seem small beer compared to the withering and highly-loaded judgements made by columnists who are hired by newspaper proprietors to act as their master’s voice. Patience Wheatcroft was disingenuous the other day when she told the House of Lords that in many years of working for Rupert Murdoch at both The Times and The Wall Street Journal she never felt under pressure to take a particular line. Newspapers proprietors choose editors and columnists who they know will not need leaning on to say what is required. They are hired precisely because their worldview already accords with that of their paymaster so they do not need to be told that their job is to peddle a line which assists the commercial and political interests of their employer. If we don’t like those views we don’t have to buy that newspaper. But the BBC, as the national broadcaster, in which viewers and listeners place a high level of trust, is a different matter.

The studied neutrality required of the BBC’s political editor must apply to the tone of oral reports as much as to the language employed in written ones or blogs. Unscripted spontaneous exchanges on telly news bulletins always run the risk that a broadcaster may be tempted to be more tendentious. That is a particular problem for a wordsmith like Robinson who has a natural gift for an arresting phrase.

There is an implicit scorn in a judgement like the one that Gordon Brown had “tried very, very hard to make friends” with Murdoch’s newspapers. What does that imply? That Brown was an inveterate sycophant? That he was needy and pathetic? That he was Gordy-no-mates?

Re-read The Sun’s attack on Brown for his handwritten letter to the wife of a dead soldier, which it headlined “Bloody Shameful”. It was shameful indeed, but the shame properly attached to News International. It was an unjust attack on a man whose impaired vision affects his handwriting and who had made time in an overcrowded schedule to pen a hand-written note to the next of kin of every soldier who died on his prime ministerial watch.

Subjected routinely to that kind of cruelty it is hardly surprising that Brown, like other politicians, sought to feign friendship with the bully-boy perpetrators in the hope of minimising such savage attacks. Trying “very, very hard to make friends” is a snide way of describing the way that a prime minister felt it necessary to humiliate himself in order to pursue the policies he believed in.

“My point is not to condemn Gordon Brown,” Nick Robinson wrote. Indeed he should not. That is not his job.

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