Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Tuesday, 19 July 2005 18:20 UK

Scoops, spin and the unexpected

By Andrew Marr
BBC News political editor

Five years? Can it really have been five years since I first stood with a feeling close to terror in front of a live news camera, one leg shaking with the tension, and began to spout?

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The weeks and months have passed like a fast-forwarded film, a whirl of crises, rainstorms in Downing Street, elections, resignations and laughter.

In that time I must have done more than 600 news packages - those short films, that each take hours to record, write and edit - and something like 2,500 live broadcasts, TV and radio pieces, never mind the rather less impressive BBC News website output (sorry 'bout that).

On the busiest days, it was sometimes a dozen or more acts of broadcasting, and in the most frantic period of all, the climax of general election campaigns, it meant working non-stop for 28 hours at a stretch.

It's meant instant judgements relayed to millions; interviews set up at a few minutes' notice; a constant scrabbling through official documents, wobbly shorthand notes, reference books and manifestos; scripts scribbled on my knee in desert military airbases or drizzly suburban car parks; and the periodic collapse of satellite links, camera batteries, computers and screens.

Bitten tongue

In that time I have had my share of scoops, won more often by foul means than fair.

I've made some fairly wild films, kicking over giant plastic chessmen, teetering on statues and using everything from pub blackboards to theatre posters to make whatever point seemed important at the time.

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I've been responsible for such tortured metaphors that the Society for the Protection of English were considering taking me to the International Criminal Court, and I've said a few sentences I regret ever left my blabbering mouth.

My main enemies have been tiredness, fought mainly with chocolate from the slot-machine in the BBC's Westminster Millbank newsroom, and various disobliging colleagues in the press.

We in the Corp are discouraged from acts of public controversy. I have a badly bitten tongue.

More seriously, these were not the five years of politics anyone expected.

Dangerous leftie

When I came in, the gilt had been knocked off New Labour and "spin" was a national shorthand for disappointment. Tony Blair hadn't won a second election victory, never mind a third.

The press was turning.

The Women's Institute had recently slow-handclapped the prime minister. Ken Livingstone, standing defiantly as an independent, had romped home in the first London mayoral election. In William Hague the Tories had a witty, sparky young leader who was surely bound to do well.

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(One of my first acts as a new BBC appointee widely accused of being a dangerous leftie was to meet Mr Hague for lunch; I was much impressed, not least by his readiness to split a bottle of red wine.)

Some themes would echo relentlessly over the next five years - a bill to ban fox-hunting was being argued over; and there was trouble in the countryside, mainly over foot and mouth; Gordon Brown was said to be chafing about when he would take over; Mr Blair was declaring Britain to be at the heart of Europe, while acting with extreme caution over the euro.

Though Bill Clinton was still in the White House, Number 10 was making tentative gestures of friendship towards a little known George W Bush, advised by the shrewd Washington ambassador Christopher Meyer, that he could be the next president.

Pressure

But almost from my first day doing the job, the old message was rammed home that politics, and political coverage is about the unexpected.

I was heading with Tony Blair for a tour around the Midlands and North, culminating in a dinner for John Prescott's 30th anniversary as an MP.

Will I miss it? Of course I will - the daily journalist is an addict of the unexpected

As we drove in a prime ministerial convoy, we began to notice tailbacks.

Lorry drivers were blockading oil refineries. Petrol stations were running dry.

Team Blair were adamant. He would not turn back. He would not bow to pressure.

Would he not?

First reaction

Overnight, there was an almost literal U-turn. I was broadcasting live for Today when a message came through on my phone: the PM was heading back to London at breakneck speed, to handle what was now acknowledged as a national emergency.

In the grimmest possible way, the end of my time echoed that.

At Gleneagles, as the first confusing news about explosions in London filtered up to Tony Blair's G8 summit team, the first reaction was that he would carry on hosting this vital meeting. Three horrible hours later, he was heading south, grim-faced, in a Chinook helicopter.

This isn't, I hope, a glib connection.

From 11 September 2001, Mr Blair's premiership was altered utterly, and his expectations about what his time in power would mean were elbowed aside.

The economy has been largely benign, public services have had a lot more money but have been reformed, and improved, with agonising slowness, and the country has doggedly refused to embrace Europe, as he'd expected it to.

War leader

But none of that - not even three big general election victories - has given the final stamp of meaning to the Blair years.

It has been war - the war against terror, the zig-zagging global diplomacy before the Afghan campaign, and then the political eruptions and wounds caused by the Iraq war. Who expected all that?

Not me.

Will I miss it? Of course I will. The daily journalist is an addict of the unexpected.

But I want to dig deeper, think longer and write some more as well.

It's time to try to kick the habit.



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