I’ve just finished Live From Downing Street, a political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.
What to make of it?
In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys is born out of his legacy.
Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”
However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.
The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.
Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.
Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.
What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.