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May 15, 2008

My week: Robin Denselow, freelance Newsnight correspondent


Yes, I know it’s a Bank Holiday and it’s a beautiful sunny day, but there are deadlines. In fact there seem to be more deadlines since I left the BBC staff and went freelance, but I’m not complaining, even if my family are none too impressed. In many ways, this is the perfect work day.

I start by finishing a feature for The Guardian on Miriam Makeba, the veteran diva of South African music. She’s 76 now, and still a quite amazing lady, as I found when I interviewed her in Italy a couple of weeks back. Once that’s finished, I watch the Newcastle vs Chelsea game with my 18-year-old son, William.

After shopping I come back to look through some of the entries for this year’s Amnesty media awards, with my wife Jadzia, who spent many years working for the BBC. I’m one of the judges, but can’t reveal my thoughts here, as the final decisions have yet to be made. But I’m surprised that the BBC entries vary from the brilliant to the forgettable. Finish the day by writing regular CD reviews for The Guardian. This week it’s the brilliant Scottish band Lau and an over-commercial album from Sudanese one-time boy soldier Emmanuel Jal.


Newsnight is giving me an unusually quiet week after our excursion to Austria last week, when we secured a British exclusive interview with Natascha Kampusch, the 20-year-old who was abducted and held for eight years, between the ages of 10 to 18. She is starting a fund to help the victims of Josef Fritzl, and suddenly agreed to talk to us after first saying she would only read out a statement.

She was an interesting lady – in some ways still very young, and in others remarkably mature, as with her reflections on the way Austria’s Nazi past still affects attitudes to women. I’m delighted to learn that there was a Newsnight audience of 1.7 million for the interview, but less pleased to find a note from the BBC human resources department in Belfast.

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It tells me that ‘current legislation requires employers to satisfy themselves that employees possess documentary evidence of their eligibility to live and work in the UK. Please could you email me proof of this asap, ie your passport…’Is this a joke? I have spent most of my working life with the BBC, but I have to photocopy my passport and send it off to Belfast.


One of the delights of being freelance is that I can say ‘yes’to anybody. A couple of weeks back I recorded a programme for the Radio 4 Music Group series, which is broadcast at lunch time today. It’s a music chat show hosted by the affable Dr Phil Hammond, and the other guests are Nick Clegg and Kate Adie. Clegg talks about Johnny Cash, Kate discusses her admiration for Joan Baez and I talk about my childhood hero Lonnie Donegan. Musical taste is a great insight, and it’s hard to argue too much with anyone who likes Cash or Baez.


Last night, Newsnight secured something of a scoop with the revelation that those working airside at British airports are screened for criminal convictions in the UK, but not for any offences committed abroad. It’s the lead story in today’s Telegraph, so Newsnight’s editor Peter Barron understandably wants a follow-up. I spend the day working with producer Meirion Jones – one of the best investigative journalists around – and find that the lax airport arrangements also apply to London underground and guards and bouncers in the ‘security industry”. Film piece to camera outside BBC Television Centre, overlooking the Tube line, while balanced precariously on a chair. Passers-by will never believe this is serious journalism.


I spend all day at Newsnight, but in the evening I’ve been asked to chair a discussion about the political and cultural importance of 1968, at the South Bank, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Night of the Barricades in Paris. The panel consists of Joe Boyd, the record producer and writer, and Sukhdev Sandhu, the writer and film critic. It all goes well and I try to stop it becoming too much of nostalgia-fest.

Yes, 1968 was a wild year, but looking back now it seems dominated by such horrors as the Mexican student massacres and the repression in Brazil, where leading musicians like Gilberto Gil were jailed – to say nothing of the crushing of the Prague Spring.

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