Nick Robinson is both lucky and unlucky with the timing of his book about the difficult relationship between politicians and the men and women who make television programmes about them.
Lucky, because it’s currently the dominant issue of the hour thanks to Newsnight’s false accusations against a Conservative Party treasurer. Unlucky, because this scandal occurred too recently to be included in its pages. It’s as if Robinson had published a book about Middle Eastern dictators a few days before the Arab Spring.
Live From Downing Street is part-memoir, recounting the twenty-five years Robinson has spent reporting on British politics for the television news, and part polemic, making the case for allowing cameras into the corridors of power. While Robinson is always informative and entertaining – and surely right about making the political process as transparent as possible – he has to tread carefully in both sections of the book because of his continuing status as the BBC’s political editor.
For instance, there are one or two amusing anecdotes about his senior colleagues, but nothing remotely scandalous. The most candid thing in the book is Robinson’s admission that he was once a Tory activist – not exactly a state secret. Indeed, Alastair Campbell never tired of mentioning the fact when he was Tony Blair’s press secretary, always introducing Robinson to his boss in the same way: “Prime Minister, the chairman of the Young Conservatives.”
It’s one of the facts of life that no BBC employee is brave enough to write a tell-all memoir mid-way through his broadcasting career, not even a man who has stood up to the most powerful politicians in the land.
The polemical aspects of the book are equally restrained, with Robinson bending over backwards to appear measured and reasonable. It may come as a surprise to readers to discover that there used to be something called the ’14-day rule’ whereby the BBC was prevented from reporting on anything likely to be discussed in Parliament during the next two weeks. Robinson dismisses absurdities such as this in fairly short order, but he’s much more careful when dealing with accusations of political bias.
The last section of the book is taken up with a good deal of agonizing about whether the state should continue to insist on impartiality as a condition of granting broadcast licenses to radio and television stations. Why not allow them to be overtly biased, like Fox News in America?
Not surprisingly, Robinson comes down in favour of the British way of doing things, though he takes an awfully long time to get there: “My view has always been that impartiality is…like marital bliss – something to believe in and strive for but which you must accept you will almost certainly never quite achieve.”
In Robinson’s defence, the reason he’s so circumspect is not just because he’s a BBC employee. The mid-section of the book – and by far the best – is a historical account of how television has come to dominate British political life in the past 75 years. Two men in particular are singled out for praise – Robin Day and Brian Walden, pioneers of the probing political interview. Thanks to their unwillingness to defer to senior politicians, they helped level the playing field between MPs and broadcasters. Robinson clearly thinks this is a good thing, but even he acknowledges that how a politician performs in front of the camera now has too great an impact on his career.
“Historians will debate whether Gordon Brown was suited to be prime minister in any age,” he writes. “What is beyond doubt is that he was not suited to the job in the age of television.”
It’s precisely because television reporters have become so powerful that Robinson feels obliged to stress just how politically unbiased he is. If he was a Conservative once, he’s now a creature of the television news establishment who sees it as his professional duty to remain above the fray. “After twenty-five years of looking at both sides of an argument I don’t really have many views left,” he writes.
He’s probably exaggerating a bit, but he gives a good impression of neutrality in the pages of this book. That’s undoubtedly a boon for the cause he believes in, but makes for a less lively book that you’d expect from such a fearless broadcaster.