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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Robinson discusses his new role
Nick Robinson
Robinson has returned to the BBC from ITV
The BBC's new political editor, Nick Robinson, was quizzed by Simon Mayo on Radio Five Live about his plans for the job. Here is a transcript of the interview:

Simon Mayo: Hello Nick.

Nick Robinson: Hi Simon.

SM: In fact no stranger to Five Live, are you, because didn't you start the Weekend Breakfast?

NR: I didn't start the Weekend Breakfast. I actually started a programme that then used to be called Late Night Live - the 10 'till 1 show and I loved every minute of it actually and did the phone-in then between 10 and 11 and had the "Mickey" taken out of me very regularly about lack of sporting knowledge really. I remember there was some very, very cruel things said to me, not least by Richard Littlejohn.

SM: Yeah, ok, well he says some very rude things to an awful lot of people - that's kind of what he's there for - that's what he's paid for. Now today was supposed to be your first day in the job but you were on the 10 o'clock News yesterday dealing with the Ken Clarke stuff. So I suppose that's an early sign about how your job's going to go.

NR: Yeah, I couldn't resist it - events just come along don't they. Ken Clarke is, to use that old cliche, a big beast. He's good for trade. Now I'm not saying that I want him to be Tory leader but there's no denying that journalists regard him as good for business. He's good copy, he's good fun in front of the camera. He tells you what he thinks; he's a character; people have heard of him and I couldn't resist coming in a day early just to report on his declaration for the leadership because it's fascinating. Although on paper Simon you can look at all the reasons why Ken Clarke should not and probably will not be Tory leader and yet and yet he's got so much experience, he's got that charisma, you say he makes this leadership contest that much more unpredictable and therefore that much more interesting too.

SM: Why do you think he probably won't be leader?

NR: Well, the reasons are the reasons he knows and the reasons he's been rejected twice before over a period of eight years by the Tories: one that time determines, is he's steadily getting older of course - he's now 65 that means he would be saying I want to be prime minister in my 70s in a culture where youth is very, very important. On the other hand, Ken Clarke says, I don't look old, I don't feel old and many other politicians around the world are much older than me but it's a potential problem. He's controversial for all sorts of reasons. He was when he was minister for Margaret Thatcher. People forget this when they say what a good time guy he is, what a great bloke is - he was a very unpopular minister at times; taking on the ambulance workers when he was health secretary and so on. He's controversial in opposition having taking on a directorship at British American Tobacco and earning a million pounds during that period for promoting smoking. That makes him difficult. And he's divisive in some ways too because on Europe of course he disagreed with his party on the euro and the European constitution. And now on Iraq - an extraordinary moment really - for a senior Tory, that wants to be prime minister, standing up and in a way saying the unsayable this morning. Saying, you know it, I know, but I'm prepared to say and many others aren't, Tony Blair's made us less safe on our streets.

SM: We can talk more about the Conservative leadership - hey we've starting it so we might as well carry on.

It's still going to be a tricky one though isn't it because it would be fair enough for the prime minister to say, but the Conservative Party taken as whole, was very enthusiastic for the war. Indeed as I remember Iain Duncan Smith was encouraging the government to do more and sooner.

NR: That's right and Tony Blair always mocks him and has mocked the Tories ever since, saying that he wanted me to bomb earlier rather than not bomb at all. But in a way that's what Ken Clarke's saying, he's saying "I'm not tainted by this, I said it then and I say it now, I thought the war was a bad idea, you can check the speeches". I was there Simon when he was delivering them, I remember them well. He was saying what we came to know the late Robin Cook as a spokesman for and I had the odd jokey text from a member of the Labour Party as I sat listening to Ken Clarke this morning saying, is he running for the leadership of the Lib Dems or is this the Robin Cook memorial speech? Ken Clarke is saying things that have been said on the Left but he believes many, many natural Conservatives believe. And there's plenty of polling evidence to suggest that he might be right.

SM: We were debating this on the programme yesterday - do you think the only question that the Conservatives need to ask themselves is who can beat Gordon Brown? And really there is no other question that they need bother with.

NR: Well in one sense that's true but the only difficulty with that approach is that you end up talking purely about personality and once you do personality you end with these questions that we've already been talking about. Is he too old? Will he defeat David Cameron who's a leading candidate? Is he too young? He's only 35, not 65. Is he too fat? Is he too thin? Is he bald? Is he not bald? And that, I think, is a danger for the Tories in recent years, is that they have allowed themselves to appear as if they think the real question is whether somebody wears a tie or comes from Scotland or doesn't. In other words that you're looking for the marketing man's answer to Tony Blair and now as you say, Gordon Brown. And there hasn't been enough, I think most Conservatives believe, saying what are we now for in the public's mind. For those people who don't say, well thanks very much for the things that you did in the 80s, but frankly what are you for now. What is the answer for those people who say, Tony Blair is a bit of Tory isn't he; he's strong on defence and pro-American. He wants to cut taxes relatively low - what makes him different from you - he's in favour of the free market. And it seems to me Ken Clarke was today saying "well I know what makes him different, I can criticise him on Iraq because I did all along and that's what makes me different".

SM: I've never been to a Conservative Party conference before. We're going to do the programme from there the first Tuesday in October. They could well have a leadership crisis on the eve of conference which hasn't happened since Macmillan, I think. So that's going to be one hell of conference Nick isn't it?

NR: It's going to be interesting because they planned it deliberately. Michael Howard the current leader, the retiring leader, set out to say, let's use our conference as a shop window, as a beauty contest if you like. Now some commentators and some Tories said are you mad? The last thing you want to do is display the rival candidates, to display divisions in other words about the direction of the party. But he, Michael Howard, disagrees fundamentally. He says, look if you can't use your conference to take a look at all your biggest characters, at your biggest beats, what on earth is it for?

And therefore he's set out - and the Tory rules make it inevitable that we will look each day and say, hello, there's a guy who wants to be Tory leader and prime minister, do you fancy him? And it's a big, big opportunity for those guys not to just show off in front of the country but of course in front of the activists that go to that conference.

SM: What is the job of the political editor? What are your responsibilities Nick?

NR: The weird thing about doing this job and succeeding someone as popular and incredibly talented as Andy Marr, is you do a whole range of things really.

You are part reporter, saying what's happened in the world of politics on that day. You're part sketch writer, like those guys in the papers who can have a bit of fun with the way the day has gone. You're part commentator and analyst, trying to explain what you think is really going on. But in the end, Simon, what's it about, what we're supposed to be saying is, whether you like them or not, whether you like politics or not, whether you instinctively are bored by it or not, you know it matters. Day to day there are decisions being taken on your behalf that will affect your life. And the job of the political editor is to say, this is what they've decided, this is how it affects you and this is why it matters.

SM: Is it your job - is it the BBC's job to make people interested in politics?

NR: We can't make people interested in politics and I don't think it's our job to say you ought to go out and vote for example. There are people who say, look you at BBC, why don't you tell people why they should vote? It seems to me that not voting can be a conscious decision. It's not just because you're lazy or apathetic - although it might be in some cases - it might be because you think, I don't think any of them deserve the vote, I want to send a signal by not voting. But I do think it's our job to try and make what people think is dull or doesn't matter, to try and make it interesting and tell them why it does matter when it does. If it's trivial and if it's political soap opera, if it's arguing for its own sake - well maybe we should point that out too.

SM: I ask it because there are some who think that we should be and that it is definitely the BBC's job to - if young people, for example, are not interested or don't appear to be interested in politics and politicians then we should do a youthful programme to try and encourage that.

NR: Well, yes I think we should do our best to get people interested. What I'm hesitating about saying though is that it's somehow our duty, therefore if people don't vote - you say "Ah, well that's partly the BBC's fault". It seems to me it is our duty to try and report what's going on first and foremost. To tell you why it matters what's going on when it does matter and to try and make it as interesting as possible, not to make it dull. And we should to do that to all groups. And we know throughout history that young people have been less interested in politics until politics affects them. If there's a war and they feel threatened by it; if there's terrorism on the streets and they feel threatened by it; if there's a recession, God help us, and people haven't got job and feel short of money. You suddenly discover all those people who weren't interested in politics suddenly discover that they were. And I was really struck by the huge march against the war with Iraq or indeed the march against the ban on hunting. When it starts to hit people's own lives or things they feel really passionate about Simon. People who told you a week ago they found politics boring suddenly don't.

SM: Is the job of political editor, does it have the profile that it does at the moment and attract all the attention that it does - does that go back to John Cole, a political editor, a few political editors ago? I can't remember who it was before that. Remember when John used to appear on the 10 O'clock News or 9 o'clock News as it was and give his version of what's just happened - everyone seemed to say, shut up, let's just see what John Cole has to say - right okay now I understand it.

NR: Yes, John Cole on the BBC with that extraordinary Northern Ireland accent that people mocked at first but came to love. The herringbone coat, as you say. And then his rival at ITN, Mike Brunson, who was an incredibly successful political editor. The big glasses, the drawl, the wry observation. They made people want to listen, they made people want to know. Now partly that was because of course events were interesting. They particularly came to prominence during the fall of Margaret Thatcher during the period when Britain was shoved out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and interest rates rocketed up. And events in the end are what determine whether we're interesting or not - whether people are listening to us or not. But you're right, John Cole was one of the first characters - he was certainly for me, one of the people that made me think that's a great job, that's someone doing something that matters and looks fun as well.

SM: Therefore you are a personality - but do you have to build a quirkiness maybe - you've got the glasses and you've got the stories - but is that a good thing?

NR: What are you saying about my glasses Simon?

SM: They are striking Nick.

NR: You think they're bold, do you?

SM: I certainly do. I think Elton John might turn them down.

NR: In Yes Minister, for those people who remember Yes Minister, civil servants who were describing an absolutely mad idea would describe it to ministers as brave - and you're saying my glasses are brave, Simon, I think.

SM: We've become accustomed to them. Is it something that feels the right thing to do though because Andy Marr certainly did it, John Cole became that personality and you have to be a personality don't you?

NR: Well I've just had an email, it's funny you say this - you know Andy Marr dressed up in fishnet and tights for Children in Need...

SM: Well that was a mistake.

NR: It's part of your contract this producer implausibly claimed on an email. So I may have to consider whether that really is a wise part of the job or not. But we shouldn't be personalities because the danger is you become bigger than the story. But if you're on people's telly screens or indeed if you're presented a radio programme every day, people get to know you. They know when you're on form or when you're not; they know when you're amused and when you're not; when you look a bit cross and when you don't and they're bound to get to know you. And obviously you hope that that helps bring people to the story - the danger is if it gets in the way - if you get bigger than the story or you think you're more important than the people you're reporting on - you can't have that.

SM: So what will your style be? You were political editor at ITN - that was your last job - will you be doing exactly the same? Will it be the same Nick Robinson or the fact that you're a BBC political editor make any difference?

NR: It makes a difference in the range of things you do. At ITN there are essentially those three bulletins a day at ITV News - there's a news channel too of course - but it is essentially those three bulletins at day. At the BBC, look at the conversation we're having now, or writing for the internet which is hugely, hugely widely read and influential as well. The possibility to do current affairs programmes, documentaries as well as to do television and of course importantly of all, the possibility to do radio and not just TV. But having said all that, loads of new things to do, things I did in the past when I was at the BBC - but no, I'm not going to change - no need to change - I'm who I am and have enjoyed massively working at ITV news when I was there and look forward to some happy years here too.

SM: Your old boss, David Mannion, writing in one of the Sunday papers said that when people choose ITV news, we have to give them the works - strong journalism, big name anchors, high end production and whizzy graphics. Do you have to give them the same at the BBC?

NR: (Laughs) We might not quite put it in that way I suspect. But Dave Mannion is a huge character and has transformed ITV news. It's had an amazingly impressive summer. I tell you what I would say is that John Birt, the former boss of this organisation, the former director-general, gave a big lecture at the weekend at a big television festival and he said rightly, the day that only the BBC is doing public service broadcasting - in other words talking about things that matter, is a disaster for the BBC. We all want really, really, strong competition for the BBC because there are days when we're going to get it wrong and our competitors will get it right and if we don't wake up in the morning fearing that someone will do it better than us, get it before us, you get lazy and sloppy.

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