Interview with Nick Robinson

Lord Soley

Recently I interviewed Nick Robinson the BBC’s political editor. One of my interests over many years has been the relationship between politics and the media. The interaction between politicians and the media plays a vital role in defining the way our political system works for the public. It is vital to freedom, democracy and the Parliamentary process. I introduced a Bill in 1993 called the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill:

 It was talked out by the government but the Press Complaints Commission did make changes as a result of that Bill and I like to think that it opened up a continuing debate about the way the media and politics interact.

One of my main concerns has been the way politicians and journalists are seen by so many members of the public as talking a similar language and – importantly – talking increasingly to themselves. It is no accident that politicians and journalists are heavily distrusted by the public.

Listen to the broadcast and let us know your views. Nick Robinson and I have discussed this before. We are both interested in your responses and I think a lot of other politicians and journalists will also be interested.

Responses please!

17 comments for “Interview with Nick Robinson

  1. Croft
    19/01/2010 at 2:41 pm


    The problem with 24hr news is that it’s often the same news for 24hrs! You have headlines on the hour, main stories till ’20 past then sport to ’25 and then weather then it’s back to the headlines on the half hour, a few magizines style fillers and then it repeats on the hour all throughout day. It’s rare on tv or radio to actually stick on one news topic for any amount of time – certainly beyond the most superficial sound bite from each party

    “lab: sheep are taller and have whiter fleeces since ’97 Cons: the government has changed the way height/fleece whiteness is measured and it’s actually duller LDs: Sheep whiteness is a distraction it’s the amount of curl that matters 🙄 ”

    Then the news moves on without any really independent voice picking the comments apart to see the truth or sleight of hand. There are the occasional BBC programme on the news channel or parliament/radio4 that focuses with details and analysis but 99% of the coverage is either the extreme of raw parliamentary footage (with little or no guidance or explanation) for anyone but anoraks to follow or the kind of superficiality I mentioned above.

    Even more irritating is the vox pop reactions to news of the day in which journalists ask for opinions on a issue(usually on a strict balance for/against the issue whatever the real balance) but then allow only seconds to speak denying the opportunity to say anything at all.

    As to your comments and to some extent your bill I felt there was one obvious issue you didn’t acknowledge. Just because politicians want to talk about ‘X’ doesn’t make that the most important story for the public let alone the press. There is a real danger of the political class simply conducting a conversation with itself with the public indifferent. How often is the news story of the day conducted, talked and debated about everywhere but parliament because it’s poor at topicality (government control of debates) The press can’t really be expected to do other than cover the topic of the day and if parliament isn’t that story then parliament has to look at why it’s at fault and fix it’s problem – it can’t try to ‘fix’ a free press.

  2. Twm O'r Nant
    19/01/2010 at 3:23 pm

    Firstly they do not speak the same language.
    But they do enjoy a marriage made in hell.

    Journalists are basically anarchists, who will tell any lie to sell a story; political journalists, particularly those of the BBC will tell any propaganda to sell their story, however little moral value it may have.

    Politicians are legislators, and for better or worse, seated and saddled with observing and making law; very different creatures indeed.

    Archos==== anarchos.

    Law ==== against law.

  3. Carl.H
    19/01/2010 at 3:27 pm

    I think the media and Politicians talk similar in so much they both want you to believe something they have to say.

    Media has changed, it can no longer be stated as fact that because “x” reads “z” newspaper he votes “y”, although a lot of people still think along those lines. The internet has of course made a vast difference, we can all try to find the full facts by going online to various sources.

    The media reporting of politics alway`s seem`s tainted with opinion, be it that of the reporter or of the enterprise s/he is reporting for. I think in that sense the media is no longer as trusted as it once was. Of course merely reporting the facts, especially as far as politics goes is mostly boring and people do find it so. Even the budget which used to be avidly watched and listened to now is not, just the end result- how much have they taken off me now.

    The media fully realise that politics is boring, let`s face it nothing really happens except a lot of people talking boring nonsense. Whom they believe are only there for their own benefit. Even the expenses scandal, which could have had much more media attention actually didn`t, much to your relief. Why because people knew nothing would happen, nothing would change and the people quickly became disinterested. The media knew this because their job is to know what people want in terms of entertainment and news is entertainment. Who want`s to see and hear ” Nothing happened in Afghanistan today”, ” Today in Parliament no law was passed as all MP`s agreed we had too much”, ” In the Lords, Lord Soley spoke for four hours on the psychology of the voting public, then everyone woke up and went to lunch”.

    The media, God bless em, try to make Politics entertaining and exciting but that`s against the nature of the beast I`m afraid.

    Politics is a full time job, even for those involved it is difficult if not nigh on impossible to know everything about a given subject. People do not want to know about Section 3 clauses 3-14, they want to know the effect on them in certain circumstances and those are few, mostly fiscal. The media know that so they serve them “Question Time” and the ilk and why did so many watch when Nick Griffin was on ? For the argument, not the content of it.

    Think on it this way, there are possibly three million England Football Managers in this country. Only one turns up for training, tactics etc., because that`s the boring bit. However all of them turn up for the game and the argument/debate when we lose to Germany on penalties and the media will see that the one that turns up for training will be sacked.

    The Media = Self interest,manipulation of facts, promotion of self worth, control of public ideaology.

    Doesn`t seem too far away from Politicians to me.

  4. Bedd Gelert
    19/01/2010 at 5:16 pm

    Lord Soley, I think it is again a case of ‘Physician, heal thyself..’ since it is the politicians who cut ‘benefit in kind’ deals with Rupert Murdoch et al to gain electoral advantage.

    So it is no wonder that control over the media has been lost to the extent that regulation is not possible. They are the same over the supermarket sector.

    So don’t come crying to us – if you don’t like the way the ‘beast’ behaves, stop bloody feeding it !!

  5. 19/01/2010 at 6:11 pm

    Aha! I Spy a podcast, albeit embedded from another site. More, please.

    The first point to raise is whether it would have been more enlightening to talk to a news editor rather than a pundit. Put another way, how much of what we hear or read is down to the influence an editor or Downing Street advisor?

    Nick Robertson talks about the ping-pong of Commons debate but the fuller coverage presented by BBC Parliament allows us to see a more articulate HoC (& HoL), again, leading to questions of editing.

    He comments that the web allows us to pick ‘n’ mix information that we believe is pertinent to us: I presume he feels this lets reporters off the hook. This is somewhat backed up by the profusion of political sites, such as LotB, and blogs including those from political hacks who, I suppose, have the need to be heard.

    As for those on demonstrations, please do not assume they march for me.

    P45, Mr Robertson?

    • Twm O'r Nant
      19/01/2010 at 7:33 pm

      “talk to a news editor rather than a pundit”

      John, the delightful jewish gentleman, who anchors the BBC news during the day, thinks that news is exciting,fantastic, amazing and so on, so at least somebody enthuses about political news, somehow.

      I don’t see it myself.

      Sometimes we hear of intelligence tests as criteria for membership. I wonder how the intelligence of journalists compares with politicians, and then also with Members of the Second chamber?

      I should think it would be in ascending order, from hack to Lord speaker.

      Journalists are not blessed with brains; Commons members need some, and Peers have more, on account of their life work usually.

      • 19/01/2010 at 10:20 pm

        There is something weird about most of the male presenters on BBC 24 – I’m thinking Stepford Wives…

  6. Mikebo
    19/01/2010 at 7:26 pm

    The problem with both politicians and journalists is the fact that it is in their interests to maintain the status quo. News stories delivered at 6am suddenly change emphasis by the main news times. I suspect that these stories have been vetted and sanitised to give a more positive light to both, for example, the MPs expenses scandal merely started off with “one or two bad eggs” and the “news” after being the principal headline fell away to be fourth or fifth item later in the day. It was only when the expenses were seen as a “gravy train” and that a good percentage of our 646
    MPs benefitted freely from it that the story later resumed the significance it merited.

    Another problem I find is that if politics and politicians were truly honest why would there be a need for spin-doctors – Wilson began the trend in the 1960s, but the level of “news manipulation” reached new heights with Thatcher and Blair. the fact that the PM’s Press Office and Press Officer are regarded as key “political” figures reinforces this opinion.

    I am all for the freedom of the Media – “Publish and be dammned” – but I am wary
    of politicians “bearing gifts”.

  7. Phil
    19/01/2010 at 7:51 pm

    As someone who has recently moved to the US, I would argue that the UK’s negative attitude to politicians is the sign of healthy parliamentary/media relations. Over here, targeted news channels means that people are incredibly enthusiastic to the point of blindness about the party that best represents their views. In contrast, they have such a rabid hatred of the alternative party that they don’t listen to a word of what they say. Not exactly healthy.

    UK parliament’s media image issues are self-made. MPs seem to only vote on party lines and the weakness of committees mean that decent/process in Parliament can never be heard. It also doesn’t help that appointment of Lords is organized by the executive, calling into question the Lords strength to oppose the commons. While I do not advocate an elected second house – I see the Lords almost like a panel with a wide variety of experts scrutinizing the Commons laws – it would certainly benefit from seeming less tied to the executive.

    I suppose I don’t really trust politicians because they always seem to do what the executive says. In part this might be the media’s fault for not covering enough bills that get quashed before a vote,

    • Twm O'r Nant
      20/01/2010 at 11:42 am

      “I don’t really trust politicians because they always seem to do what the executive says”

      It’s when the journalists go straight to the executive for their stories that the fun begins.

      ‘Trust’ may be the one thing that the two occupations have in common, if expense allowances are to be believed.

      Politicians ransacking the coffers, while you can not trust a journalist further than you can see him to invent stories about you.

      One of the skills of politics is surely to know how the press will report what you say.
      The devil is in the detail.

  8. Clive Soley
    21/01/2010 at 3:16 pm

    Croft. My point is that politicians and journalists are often talking to themselves – that’s why we need to examine more closely how we “feed each other”.

    Carl. Of course some politics is boring – justice and law can also be boring but we tend to cover it better IMV. One of the roles of Parliament is to examine and pass legislation and that can be very boring BUT it can also have a big effect on people’s lives. How do we convey important information that results from the political process? This is not necessarily about accurate reporting. It is often about choice of issues. So reporting how one minister bashes a shadow minister is given more importance than say the decision to change peoples pension arrangements. How do we convey that information?
    Bedd Gelert adopts the old set position of ‘it’s all your fault’ Surely there is a more thoughtful response than that.

    Ladytizzy is getting closer to the complexity of this and maybe I should try and get a news editor and a government media adviser (spin doctor). I’ll give that some thought. She makes the important but none too subtle point that Nick Robinson maybe be getting his P45! There is a problem for journalists who have to compete with the new media. They do need to add something to news coverage that can’t esilly be covered elsewhere – that probably means quality journalism and I know Nick is worried about this problem as I am. What is the role of journalists faced with a massive output of information that may or may not be accurate? Should the media ‘kite mark’ quality journalism to indicate that the journalist or journal puts a high priority on checking facts? One of the dangers in the current situation is that quality journalism gets marginalised (see the book Flat Earth News by the journalist Nick Davies)

    TWM says “One of the skills of politics is surely to know how the press will report what you say.” There was a good example of that yesterday when Baroness Kinnock referred to cuts at the Foreign Office affecting our anti terror campaign. I knew it would make the headlines – I don’t think she did. Should she have said it? Or should she have said it differently?

    Thanks for the comments.

    • Carl.H
      21/01/2010 at 4:23 pm

      “How do we convey important information that results from the political process? ”

      With great difficulty as the political process is complex in itself…and boring. If we take for instance rises in benefit or pensions these have a knock on effect of Council & Housing Benefit and the system is complex even for Local Authorities to understand.

      I was watching the Equality Bill, recorded, on the BBC just this morning, not for any great length but the Lords were mentioning that some parts could be taken to extremes it wasn`t meant to cover and calling this silliness. I find this quite astounding and bemusing, exactly how does the man in the street decide which is silly and which is covered by the law ? The Lords are at the extreme of a social spectrum to some so what may appear silly to them won`t to another. So how to convey your Lordship`s view of silly ?

      Inevitably it gets left to a Judge to decide in extreme cases, it`s costly and can make a mockery of the Law making process. However if we write every single little thing into our laws we would be there forever and perhaps you`d have to be a centenarian to practice law.

      This is the crux of the matter, Government are trying to legislate every piece of our lives and it`s absurd and also costly. The only winners are those that practice law. In law ignorance is no defence, yet to know all law….well that`s impossible.

      Parliament & the media could not possibly convey every minor item that may affect someone… some point. The internet somewhat makes up for that as we can look at the law concerning that which affects us.

      Most of us only look at what is going to affect us now, the budget etc., but even then not the whole thing. We tend to wait for one of the Snow`s to put up his nice pie chart stating clearly the winners and losers and NOT listen to the Chancellor himself. He speak`s gobbleygook and most of what he has to say doesn`t affect us at that moment.

      People get most of their news by word of mouth still, they do not want to listen to politics or politicians as they have no faith. Once they have the snippet they will go in search if it affects them but only once it does, relatively few will actually partake of any discussion with politicians before hand. This is because they believe that politicians treat the public with contempt and do not listen.

      This can be seen in recent months and also the effect of the media. The expense scandal was a media creation, camera`s in the streets, frontpage articles etc., yet I dare say it made little difference to the mailbags recieved at the House. The Digital Economy Bill has millions of post`s all over the internet, no fromt pages except maybe some IT mags…Few came and posted here seeing it a foregone conclusion that Mr.Mandleson will get his way. It will get front page the moment some innocents are cut off from the internet because that`s “good” news.

      Politicians and the media play cat and mouse with each other and generally the public feel they are treated with equal contempt by both unless they can be used in a game.

      Going back to how you convey information to the public, it cannot be done honestly through media as to get the “news” they will often take an extreme, twisted to their view. The public now are realising that the internet is a resource where we can miss out on journalistic view and come straight to the horses mouth with Government Websites but those websites must be in plain English. You went to Seven Kings School, you must still have a few contacts in Ilford. What my Lords may take time to understand, which can be considerable, ordinary people cannot nor in my experience do they have ability to understand the terminology of politics. These ordinary people only get the views of policies that are broadcast or printed in the red tops or the BBC.

      Regards quality journalism, do we not just listen to the views of those that concur with ours ? You can see this when a Telegraph reader will berate a Times reader just because. Red & Blue & Green all over again.

      • Wolfgang
        22/01/2010 at 8:54 pm

        I’ll give you one question.

        What is the present value of state employee pensions?

        Clearly a reasonable question to ask. The taxpayer is on the hook for it because there is no fund for it.

        However, even under an FOI request its a state secret.

        The reason is that its going to be around the 1.1 to 1.2 trillion mark.

        Free data? Pah

    • Twm O'r Nant
      21/01/2010 at 7:02 pm

      “I knew it would make the headlines – I don’t think she did. Should she have said it? Or should she have said it differently?”

      Heh! Heh! Im suprised Glynis Baroness Kinnock does not have the skill of telling the story exactly how it is, and it gittin’ in there exactly how she has put it, but the Euro-skills may have been slightly different!

      Peter Snow ran a story some years ago after I had asked about the welfare of a certain Emir in Croatia, then criticized me for having asked such a trivial question. At the time I had the skill of selling false stories for the pleasure of winding up the producers.

      The other day I looked up the said Emir on Facebook. His grand son with same name replied,

      That I had brought tears to his eyes for the kindness of asking,now.

      Yes it was his grandfather who had died in the concentration camp, where they were all seen in that horribly memorable Belsen like picture in about 1995. He was about 74 at the time but a gruesome end from starvation.

      PS this may be a false story.

  9. 22/01/2010 at 12:12 am

    Apologies to Nick Robinson for getting his surname wrong twice – damn! The BBC don’t do P45s at his level: so, has he been passed over for the Newsnight gig?

    I hope you will pursue the general issue, with others, via 5-10 minute podcasts or slightly longer (c.15-10mins) vblogs. Way to go.

    One other point worth a mention is the use of the red button. It strikes me that the usefulness of this facility is seen, say, by the BBC during Wimbledon fortnight when I can view alternative matches, whereas the 24 hour news channels simply offer repeats of the repeats. Bonkers. If nothing else, put a blog facility up. Something. Anything.

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