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June 8, 2023updated 09 Jun 2023 8:19am

Nick Robinson interview: Whatever happened to broadcast news impartiality?

Robinson talks Today, the threat (or lack thereof) posed by podcasts and his workaholic ways.

By William Turvill

Nick Robinson does not shy away from confrontation.

When he was political editor of the BBC, he had high-profile run-ins with Alex Salmond (who accused him of “heckling” him at an SNP press conference) and George W Bush (who, after being asked a question he didn’t like, told Robinson to “cover up your bald head”).

Nowadays, as a presenter on Radio 4‘s Today programme, Robinson’s job description includes leading “rough-tough interviews” with politicians and public figures, often for the showcase 8:10am slot.

In February this year, I experienced Robinson’s directness first-hand after I tweeted a Press Gazette chart that compared the growth of some commercial radio stations with decline across the BBC network.

Out of the blue, Robinson slid into my DMs with a note that began with the stomach-dropping words: “Re your tweet.” He went on to explain why he felt the graph, in isolation, was “slightly misleading”.

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We patched things up. Robinson agreed to do this interview, and I found him to be friendly and generous with his time: the BBC had scheduled a 30-minute meeting, but Robinson stuck around for an hour. (And, despite some reservations about being caught off-guard by “dangerous questions” in the Broadcasting House elevators, he continued to field my queries as he escorted me off the premises.)

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Still when, during our interview, Robinson casually said that many journalists were “arsey gits”, I couldn’t resist the temptation – with our Twitter exchange in mind – to ask if this was how he would define himself. “Oh, yeees,” he responded with a Cheshire cat grin. “Well,” he reconsidered, “I hope I’m not a git, actually. I’ll probably regret saying that. ‘Arsey git,’ says Robinson – I can see the headline now.”

I told Robinson I’d had the same vision. He cackled before giving me a stern look. “It’s not the first time I’ve said something like this, I should just warn you.” Alas, it was true: in 2006, an Independent headline described Robinson as “northern”, “arsey” and “confrontational”. Robinson didn’t seem to mind. “I mean: Am I arsey? Of course, I’m arsey.”

I met Robinson, 59, in a generic meeting room in Broadcasting House at 9:30am, half an hour after the end of his Friday shift on Today. His co-host that morning had been Justin Webb, who Robinson (under some coercion) loosely defined as his office bestie. (With apologies to Amol Rajan, Mishal Husain and Martha Kearney: when I asked Robinson if he had an office bestie, he answered that he and Webb had recently “danced the night away” at Abba Voyage with their partners, “if that’s a qualification for being a bestie?”)

Robinson, in a blazer and chinos, was perched at the end of a long table by the window. Spread out on the table in front of him was his flatcap, glasses, a blue watch and copies of that day’s FT and Times newspapers.

As is his routine, Robinson had gone to bed at 8 the night before. His alarm was set for 3:30 and he was in a taxi by 3:45. At around 5am, Robinson (a Manchester United fan) talks football with Barry (an Arsenal fan) in the basement canteen while drinking coffee alongside his helping of porridge. When he’s not on shift, Robinson tries to keep normal hours, which can be difficult. “There is a slight feeling of permanent jetlag.”

Impartiality rules have been changed ‘without anyone being told’

Shortly before I met Robinson, he had been lambasted by Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader turned GB News presenter, for suggesting, on the radio, that not many Today programme listeners were likely to tune into the upstart television station. Farage had called him “arrogant” and demanded rhetorically: “Who the hell do you think you are!?”

Naturally, I’d assumed the combative Robinson might have a view and want to extend this war of words. Not quite.

“Competition is good,” he said evenly when I started to ask him about new broadcast rivals like GB News and TalkTV. He quickly pivoted the conversation towards the United States, where Fox News recently paid out $787.5m to settle a libel case after it was accused of knowingly spreading false conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.

“The question I think we’ve got to ask ourselves is: are we sure it couldn’t happen here?” said Robinson. “Not today, not tomorrow, but one day?” He added that he felt the UK had “moved very quickly, without much public conversation, it seems to me, from a model of broadcasting impartiality,” covering the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and others, “to a completely different, much broader definition of what impartiality really is”.

He said it felt as though “news and highly partisan views are now routinely broadcast alongside each other on radio and TV news channels. Presenters tell viewers and listeners what they think. Serving politicians host their own shows and interview their own party colleagues, even during election campaigns. None of this, we’re told, is a breach of the rules. If so, the rules I’ve operated under, both at the BBC and ITV for more than 30 years, have been changed without anyone being told, let alone asked if they agree.”

Robinson suggested that broadcast regulator Ofcom (statement below) should instigate a form of public debate on this topic. “It’s not for broadcasters like me to set the rules,” he added, “but it is surely time that those who do – the regulator and our elected politicians – invite the public to discuss and debate how we can have news we can trust and if they want change to say so.”

Clearly, this was an issue at the top of Robinson’s mind. Later, when I asked about the future of the BBC’s licence fee funding model, he told me this was the “wrong debate” and that “no one out there gives a flying you-know-what about the funding model of the BBC. What they care about is whether in this country we preserve something that makes us unique.

“You go round the world, and [people] say: ‘You have got something we wish we had. You have got media we can trust.’ Let me stress: not just the BBC, but top-quality broadcast news made by Sky, made by ITN, as well as the BBC. You’ve got top-quality journalism, top-quality broadcast news, you’ve got fearless interviewers who can ask tough questions of any world leader and of their own leaders, you’ve got this based on [the concept] of impartiality.

“The basis of it is, as you watch it, you think: These guys aren’t asking this question because their proprietor – the guy who pays the bills – rang them up that morning, or rang their boss up, and said: ‘This is what I think.’ They’re not asking that because they’re simultaneously a member of parliament, an activist for a political party, or a columnist for a partisan newspaper.

“They’re asking these questions because they think they’re the questions that need answering, and they think that they’re questions sometimes that the public would want to hear and see answered. That is incredibly powerful prize: you build it up over decades and you throw it away like that. And that’s why I’m fearful.”

Today listening figures and ‘moments’

The timing of this interview was fortuitous for me, less so for Robinson who had recently returned from a holiday in Japan. The day before, RAJAR had released its latest radio listening figures. They showed that, in the first three months of 2023, Today’s average weekly audience had fallen by 792,000, or 12%, from the previous year.

Robinson said his reaction to the figures was to “stay calm” and think: “Look guys, we’re the market leader here. We’re the guys people want to have a pop at. We’re still the most influential morning news programme.” Which is all true. Today, in the first quarter of this year, drew an average weekly audience of 5.76 million people, according to RAJAR.

But he acknowledged that the show has had to change its game of late. “To state the bleedin’ obvious,” said Robinson, whose voice in person is identical to his on-air delivery, “it’s not enough to do the news. When I grew up you turned on the radio to find out what had happened, to literally learn events. Whereas most of us now grab our phones.”

To compete with phones, televisions, podcasts and music apps like Spotify, Robinson said Today had to deliver “moments” – “something you tell your friends about. You turn to your wife or husband, you turn to your partner, you stand over the water cooler, you say over a cup of coffee: ‘Did you hear that?’”

These “moments”, he added, could be “rough-tough interviews”, “powerful emotional moments” or “first-hand reporting”. He listed recent examples as his 8:10 interview the previous day with Ruth Kelly, the chair of Water UK – in which he challenged her on the scale of dividends that had been paid out to investors – as well as a first-hand dispatch from a reporter on the stabbing of a school teenager.

Today podcast mooted

Before my interview with Robinson, I’d heard a rumour that he and Amol Rajan were planning to launch a podcast spin-off of the Today programme.

“Podcast-tastic we are at the moment,” was Robinson’s evasive reply when I asked if this was true. “Yeah, there’s talk that – I’m sure one day we’ll do some – I mean, there is already a Today podcast called the Best of Today, but frankly it’s not well-known and it’s not well noticed. And we want to make sure that we come up with a podcast that we think really enhances what you get from Today daily if you tune in. It’s a bit ‘watch this space’ at the moment.”

When I asked if the BBC was running scared of The News Agents – a daily Global show fronted by four former BBC journalists that regularly tops the charts and recently said it had attracted 30 million downloads in its first nine months – Robinson said: “Oh, good God, we’re not running scared at all.” Had he listened to The News Agents much? “Much? No. I’ve listened occasionally. Look, they’re old mates, they’re old colleagues. I like Jon, I like Emily, I like Lewis as well. I think they do really good stuff. I’m not a regular listener.”

Robinson went on to note that podcasts in general – “this isn’t about News Agents per se, actually” – attract audiences that are “tiny compared with what Today gets”.

That may be the case for now. But podcasts are in the ascendancy, while Today, also facing increased competition from commercial radio stations like LBC, Talkradio, Times Radio and GB News Radio, may be heading in the opposite direction, at least according to the latest RAJAR numbers.

When I asked about this trend, Robinson shrugged it off, noting that there “have been endless developments” – including breakfast television and 24-hour news – that have seemingly imperilled the future of Today. The creation of podcasts, increased competition in radio and television, in speech networks, means people are asking that question again. And I say, not with complacency – because it is a challenge – but with some confidence: They’re all going to be proved wrong again.”

From ‘bouffant boy’ to BBC stalwart

Robinson grew up in Macclesfield. To my ears, he has no discernible north of England accent, something he puts down to having grown up in “posh Cheshire”. But he said he tended to sound more “Manc” when working in the BBC’s Salford offices or when sitting in Manchester United’s Stretford End.

At school, Robinson was known among friends as “the bouffant boy” because of his “big and ridiculous” hair. (He couldn’t recall when he’d gone bald when I asked. “I know that seems ridiculous,” he said, “but early. Early 30s? I literally can’t remember.”)

When Robinson was 18, he was involved in a fatal car crash. He survived while his two companions, including his best friend Will Redhead, were killed. Robinson, who named his son Will, said: “As your kids go through the age you were, and they drive for the first time, you relive it all again. You have the anxiety. I think about it a lot.”

Will Redhead’s father, Brian, was the legendary BBC journalist and Today programme presenter. He encouraged Robinson to pursue a career in broadcast journalism after he had graduated from Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford University Conservative Association.

Robinson joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1986 and went on to work for Newsround, Crimewatch, Panorama, 5 Live and BBC News 24 before he was poached to become political editor of ITV News. He was coaxed back to Broadcasting House in 2005 when the BBC offered to make him its political editor. Robinson, who self-identifies as a “workaholic – it’s a disease, I need therapy” – did the job for a decade.

In 2015, a year when he was forced to take some time off work to recover from a lung cancer diagnosis, Robinson joined the Today programme. He also now hosts the Political Thinking podcast, which features in-depth, conversational interviews with public figures.

The first six months of 2023 have been a tumultuous time at the top of the BBC. This month chairman Richard Sharp will stand down from his post after coming under pressure over his relationship with Boris Johnson, the former prime minister who appointed him to his role.

“I thought it was another reminder that he who sups with Boris Johnson sometimes comes to regret it,” was Robinson’s take. He said he knew Sharp “a bit” and described him as a “decent and sincere man who tried his best”. Was he a good chairman? “What I saw was a guy who brought with him real interest in what the BBC does.”

Both Sharp and Sir Robbie Gibb, another BBC board member, have faced accusations that they are too close to the Tory government. Robinson said that governments have always tried to “control the BBC” but they are doomed to fail because the licence fee funding model enables the corporation to be “independent”. “So anything, or anybody, that compromises that, that’s a bad thing. But I’ve got confidence that this institution is not under the thumb of anybody.”

Quickfire questions with Nick Robinson

Favourite newspaper? “I think The Times does a bloody good job.”

Magazine? No favourite.

Podcast? Talk of the Devils (The Athletic’s Manchester United podcast).

Musician? “One name? I can’t do that.”

So, Abba then? “Oh, God, don’t put Abba! Abba is definitely not my favourite. Okay, here’s my embarrassing answer: I did in my youth go to seven Genesis concerts.”

Newsletter? No favourite.

The last thing that made you laugh hysterically? “This is just a weird answer, right, but we have a dog. And our dog finds the next-door dog annoying. And my son did [an impression of] our dog barking back, but basically instead of him barking, it was just a sort of stream of foul-mouthed abuse. So, our dog appeared to be saying [in dog bark tone]: ‘F*** off!’”

Which politician would you like to go to the pub with? Ken Clarke.

Do you ever regret working too hard? “Yes. Often. I’m a workaholic. It’s a disease. I need therapy.”

Career low? “I was angriest with myself – I don’t know if it’s a low, really – but I was angriest with myself when, during the Scottish referendum, I ended up having a row [at a press conference with then-SNP leader Alex Salmond]. It’s not a low in the sense that I feel guilty about it, I was just frustrated with myself.”

Career high? “Career high, just because it was an amazing moment rather than an amazing piece of journalism, was being told by George W Bush that I should cover my bald head when I asked him a question he didn’t like.”

Ofcom statement

In response to Robinson’s comments about impartiality rules, an Ofcom spokesperson said: “Our rules – which make clear that news and current affairs must be presented with due impartiality – came into force in 2005 following public consultation, and reflect the duties set for Ofcom by Parliament in this area. Our code makes clear that the approach to due impartiality may vary according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, and the likely expectation of the audience. We take into account all these important contextual factors in deciding whether or not a programme is duly impartial.

“Our rules are also clear that serving politicians cannot, in general, be a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programme. And during an election period, candidates cannot present any type of programme.

“We are currently investigating an episode of Saturday Morning with Esther and Phil on GB News against our due impartiality rules. We are working to conclude this investigation as quickly as possible and will publish our decision on our website.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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