Nick Robinson’s premise was to document the twelve month run up to the May 2015’s General Election. Between the Scottish independence referendum, UKIP’s rise and wobbles, and early polling that couldn’t predict the next government at Westminster, it was sure to be volatile period on which to report.
The diary format of Election Notebook: The Inside Story Of The Battle Over Britain’s Future And My Personal Battle To Report It reveals that the BBC’s political editor inhabits an ever-revolving hamster wheel of current affairs, throwing stories, live interviews and edited packages into the BBC’s numerous news outlets from before breakfast to bedtime, accompanied by a surfeit of text messages from elected representatives and party workers.
You can see why Nick Robinson’s shift to present Radio 4’s Today programme from this autumn will be a welcome change of pace, even if he can no longer contribute down the line from home or – once – from a ski slope in the Alps.
Unlike some journalists’ books that are full of heroism but light on humility, Nick Robinson acknowledges (at least some of) his mistakes and flaws, and gives examples of hunches that were later proved wrong. Criticism of his reporting of Alex Salmon during the Scottish Independence Referendum is dealt with at length. He’s also very open about the team work involved in the reporting that he fronts.
He illustrates the occupational hazard of trying out a question on colleagues and then hearing them use it in press conference, before admitting he once “delivered the whole of ITN’s opening script on BBC News at 10 before realizing it was what I’d just heard them rehearsing”.
Venting his frustration with having to report from set piece and increasingly staged political events, Nick discloses a tendency to ask completely unrelated questions that don’t connect with the enforced theme. We read about his last minute cramming before election programmes – “appearing on TV is 10 per cent knowledge and 90 per cent confidence” – and join the political editor in BBC meetings that aren’t too far from W1A scripts.
… change is exciting whereas the status quo is not. This dynamic was well known in Northern Ireland. Most hacks thought it was a damned sight more interesting being a correspondent in Belfast during the Troubles, however awful they were, than it was once peace was secure.
Other than this reference, Northern Ireland barely gets a mention in the book, good evidence that our local devolved political machinations no longer overshadow national politics and don’t warrant insight from senior broadcasters. However, there’s also a looseness of language about Northern Ireland and our parties that suggests either poor knowledge or poor editing.
The Barnett funding formula is defined as “the mechanism used by the Treasury to adjust levels of public expenditure in Ireland, Scotland and Wales”. He wonders whether it would be enough for the Tories “to hold the balance of power, perhaps in combination with the SNP and the Ulster Unionists”. The UUP will be delighted, the DUP less so.
A personal crisis interrupts Nick Robinson’s election year when he seeks medical advice about his persistent “coughing and wheezing” and a bronchial carcinoid tumour is removed. He loses his voice after the operation and for a long time is unsure whether he will be able to participate in the BBC’s election night coverage. His diary entry for early in the morning of May 8 reads:
I am about to hand over to my pundit tag-team partner, Andrew Marr. There is something rather comic book about a man full of antibiotics and chemo poison with half a voice being replaced by someone still recovering from a stroke on a programme anchored by a seventy-six year old. Even though Andy and David [Dimbleby] remain the best in the business you can see why come of our bosses were so bloody nervous.
Through the 400 pages, Nick Robinson describes his public and private interactions with the UK national party leaders, analyses key moments in the general election campaign, and reflects on the use and value of social media.
Elsewhere in [The Times], Matthew Parris has written a piece I intend to cut out, blow up and stick on my office wall. It says that Twitter and other social media have become the conduit for the modern equivalent of the eighteenth-century mob and it is the duty of journalists to stand up to them, rather than to treat the often ignorant and mindless 140-character rants of this entirely self-selecting, unrepresentative sample of the British public as the voice of the people.
On reactions to the leaders’ debates:
Twitter or Facebook merely lend a loudhailer to the committed, the partisan and the organized, and the verdict of the commentariat, who will be packed together in the ‘spin room’, will be no more than a reflection of the political classes talking to themselves and producing their own instant brand of not particularly reliable convention wisdom.
On the slowness of election counts:
Perhaps if we offered a cash prize to the returning officer who counted quickest we could have the whole country behaving like Sunderland.