Why Nick Robinson loves his Suffolk bolthole
When he can takes his gaze away from parliamentary proceedings for a day or two, there's nothing the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson loves more than escaping the cut and thrust of life at Westminster and heading for his Suffolk seaside home
When he can takes his gaze away from parliamentary proceedings for a day or two, there’s nothing the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson loves more than escaping the cut and thrust of life at Westminster and heading for his Suffolk seaside bolthole
His cheerful, intelligent face, framed by those distinctive square-rimmed spectacles, is beamed into the homes of millions of people every day. From his customary vantage point outside the front door of 10 Downing Street, he’s on a permanent mission to explain the complexities of British politics and bring to life the most important stories and the characters associated with them.Nick Robinson, now aged 47, has just completed his fifth year as the BBC’s political editor. His incisive reporting and hard hitting political interviews – often laced with his characteristic touches of dry humour – have made him a firm favourite with both political ‘junkies’ and the rest of us who merely want the day’s events explained in a succinct and palatable fashion.The demands made on Nick in the frantic world of Westminster are heavy; news is now ‘24/7’, as the Americans would say, and as the corporations’ most senior and trusted political journalist he can, on the really big occasions, find himself doing 18-hour days.But now he’s found a refuge in Suffolk where he can relax away from those stresses and build a very different kind of life for himself. Earlier this year, Nick and his wife Pippa bought a cottage in Orford where they and their three children – Alice, 15, Will, 13, and Harry 10 – and cockapoo dog Sam (cross between a Cocker spaniel and poodle) are these days frequent visitors.So what made them decide on Orford? “A mixture of things. I discovered sailing about a decade ago; we used to go on family holidays to Salcombe in Devon and my wife looked wistfully out at the estuary at all the boats. I’d never sailed and as a surprise Christmas present she got me a residential sailing course in Salcombe – so I went off on my tod, stayed on an old converted ferry for three days and just completely got the bug. But I’m hopeless at it! Ask anyone here.”To great hilarity, Nick entered the Orford Sailing Club’s regatta last summer. “It was an incredibly windy day and I was about to go out with my son. I thought it was too windy and might scare him so I went out on my own. Within 45 seconds I was upside down right in front of the sailing club!” he roars with laughter. He reckons it made everyone’s day but also was grateful that no one took any photographs of him ‘looking like an idiot’ as he was upside down with his mast stuck in the mud. But he showed a sign of resilience by going out three more times, capsizing and having to be rescued.So a love for sailing brought the Robinson family to Orford, but were there other reasons? “We live in Highbury in north east London, and this is the bit of coastline which is closest, so we started coming for weekend breaks and half terms and stayed in a whole variety of places in the area.”They had friends in Orford and the previous summer had stayed in Iken a few miles away and loved it. “Those beautiful sunsets – we just thought ‘this is gorgeous.’ And the thing that clinched it is, the one thing I don’t like about sailing is what I call the golf club tendency - ‘please call me Commander and I’ve just polished my brass buttons on my blazer! Well, Orford isn’t like that, which is great.”He also likes the fact that even though people recognise him he’s never pestered, they just let him get on with things. “It’s just very chilled, people are incredibly friendly and laid back.” So how did he start on his career path to becoming, arguably, the UK’s most influential political journalist? He was born in Macclesfield in 1963 and after school he went to University College Oxford, where vv he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It was in Oxford that he met Pippa. “We were on next door staircases, and I am not sure I should tell you this whole story as it’s a bit embarrassing, but she was in a state of some disarray at the end of some party! Either I was gallant or lustful – I rescued her. And I wasn’t implying what you think I was!” After university he accepted a job with Proctor and Gamble, who were well respected for their good training courses. “Hilariously they offered me a job to market nappies! I tell you this exclusively Eileen, as I’ve never told another reporter before! So I could have been the brand manager for Pampers nappies!” he says giggling.He was eventually offered a place on the prestigious BBC news trainee scheme, not as a reporter but as a trainee producer. Joining the BBC in 1986, he worked on programmes including This Week, John Craven’s Newsround, Crimewatch UK, the Sunday political programme On the Record, and in 1996 after three years as deputy editor of Panorama he found himself on the other side of the camera. “To be honest I didn’t ever plan to be an onscreen journalist – I was a producer for a decade.” He covered his first General Election in 1997 for BBC Radio, after which he became BBC News 24’s chief political correspondent. In 2002 he was poached by ITV to become their political editor, where he stayed until his return to the BBC in 2005.What inspired him in the first place to go into journalism? “Brian Redhead (the BBC’s legendary The Today Programme presenter) was my best friend’s dad, so from the age of eight my best friend was Will and Brian was Will’s dad. I went to school a little way from him and their house was on my walk back from the station. “So from an early age I was always popping in for a glass of milk or a big slice of chocolate cake, and because Brian was presenting The Today Programme for a little time from Manchester – and even when he presented from London – he was often at home because of the nature of the job. So I grew up knowing that was his job and that it was interesting.” Were his parents political? “Not at all. My dad was a sales director in a metal firm and my mum translated. She was the child of German Jews and had been brought up in the Far East and came to England to get married. “So there was no interest in journalism as such, but they were interested in the world so the radio was on a lot and it was always on for The Today Programme. Brian was not just my best friend’s dad, he was also close to my parents and I’ve got an older brother who was friendly with the older Redhead child. I remember as a teenager coming home late and finding my dad and Brian with a bottle of whisky on the floor and ranting at each other about the wickedness of the world!”With Brian Redhead as a mentor it is not surprising that Nick chose to make journalism his career. Having been in it for a long time, how did he find the brutality of British politics? “That’s an interesting question. I do like the brutality of it, but I’m torn about it. The brutal side of politics is almost like knowing another language, if you get it, you can absolutely see what’s going on. People who don’t get it are either appalled by it or see it as some sort of mystery; they don’t pick up the nuances or phrases or so on. “What I like about it is that it’s a language I am fluent in, so when I see something – I know why you’ve done that, I know what you’re about, I know what you are trying to emphasise, I know what you are trying to put in people’s minds and yeh, I do get a kick out of that.
“Politicians are guilty of all the vices ordinary people are given to, maybe more because they are putting themselves on the public stage. But there are a lot of virtues there too.”
“But there’s an aspect of the brutality I really don’t like, which is the personal criticism that’s involved. I actually looked back the other day and thought God, you know what, I really wish I hadn’t reported – or had to report perhaps because I had no choice – on whether Charles Kennedy drinks too much, or whether Iain Duncan Smith’s wife expenses matter, or on quite a lot of the expenses scandal. I don’t enjoy all that at all. “Because – and this may appear a shocking revelation and confession – I actually like most politicians and I believe that most of them are in it because they want to make the world a better place. Do they have egos? Of course they have egos – do doctors, do lawyers not have egos? There’s an extraordinary hypocrisy in the condemnation of politicians. Politicians are guilty of all the vices that ordinary people are given to, maybe more because they are putting themselves on the public stage. But there are a lot of virtues there too.”For years the public has been critical of political spin, so how did he assess that aspect of the profession? “I still remember vividly a conversation that would have been back in the 80’s when I was new as a journalist, as I was making a programme about American campaigning techniques and whether they would come here. We had a great debate about whether we could use the word spin, because nobody would know what it meant and we decided in the end we could, but that we had to explain it. “So there was a rather earnest description of the origin of putting spin on a baseball, and how it meant putting spin on information – that shows how much things have changed. People put the best possible spin on what they do in life; the sadness is that it produces a kind of cynicism so deep that no one believes anything they hear from anybody – that is the danger of where we’ve got to. People approach any political statement now as misleading or a lie.”To illustrate the power of politicians and the people surrounding them, he recalls a chilling story. “When I was quite new as a reporter – I’d had 10 years as a producer before that – I do remember Peter Mandelson trying to end my career, saying things to my bosses and to my colleagues designed to make them think I was not trustworthy and to make them think somehow that I was politically hostile to him or to The Labour Party, and shouldn’t be trusted. “I was then told months later after a particular incident by someone on The Today Programme, the day I did a story he didn’t like, that he’d called up and said ‘Who’s on tomorrow morning’ and they said we’re not going to tell you, and he said ‘If you put Nick Robinson on, I’m very friendly with the Director General and I’ll finish your career!’“Now that’s the only time in that period, literally the only time I have lost sleep as a result of work. Just anxiety, but it also hardens you, because when I discovered that he didn’t get rid of me and in fact a lot of people supported me for what I’d done, he was just a person and I thought, hey, I can get through this. Later in life when he returned as Gordon Brown’s advisor and was effectively Deputy Prime Minister we actually got on really well and I like Peter now. That view, that I can’t fall out with these people because I can’t then do my job is not true. There’s always someone else, there’s always another route, you don’t have to be frightened of them, and they need you.”But there are some wonderful experiences attached to his job. Nick’s day can often be a very long one, starting with him opining on The Today Programme, then being on the lunch time programmes and finally ending up on the 10 O’Clock News. So how does the family cope with all his absences? “I guess the kids have never known anything different and I do worry. I remember Andy Marr (Nick’s predecessor) gave me some really good advice when I got the job. He said it will actually be harder when they’re older. When you are a young parent, you tend to think, oh it’s the toddler that will miss you and the 12 year old won’t. But teenagers have that thing where they need you now! Most of the time they don’t want to know you at all! But they want you there and then and it’s hard when you say I can’t be there.” Nick feels blessed in being married to Pippa. “I’m not saying this to put a good gloss on it. We are both incredibly lucky it’s worked out this way, she couldn’t be better suited to it, and she loves making a wonderful home, she loves being with the kids. The joy for me is she gets huge pleasure in seeing the tiny changes in what the children do, how they develop and she gets a massive reward to some extent in doing that which is very infectious. She’s not like me being needy in terms of having other people around; she doesn’t need that, she loves her vv own pursuits, like reading. We have a room perhaps pompously called the library! It’s floor to ceiling books and people say, with you being intellectual have you read all these books, and I say no! But Pippa’s read them all.”The family enjoy being in Orford and Nick relishes being able to get away from the political fray. “We love going to The Jolly Sailor pub in the village. It’s got a great atmosphere and we often get down late on a Friday or Saturday night and enjoy singing in their sea shanty evenings, especially my mother. I join in if I know the words, but I mumble rather than sing! We like the Orford Oysterage Restaurant and the kids love Southwold, because they love the pier with all the homemade amusement machines.” Last summer the family managed to spend four weeks in Orford and really got to know the place, making frequent trips to concerts at Snape. Alice got a summer job doing front of house for the Red Rose Theatre in the forest, where all the Robinsons enjoyed the production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.Flying around the world with prime ministers and meeting presidents is pretty heady stuff, but Nick seems to have a very down to earth way about him. Some politicians probably fear his tough questions but he’s very good at it and seems to enjoy his work a lot. “The wonderful thing is that people have conversations about Obama and I’m able to say, well, I was actually in The Oval Office and asked him a question the other day. If you ever lose the buzz of that you should move on, if you ever get that slightly jaundiced sense of oh, I was only asking the President of the United States a question the other day, then you’re in the wrong job.” So given he is right at the top of his tree, what might come next? “Earlier this year I made a documentary about the coalition and in the next year I’d like to do more documentaries. There are occasions when I find the ‘hamster wheel’ of day-to-day news unsatisfying, when you wish you could get deeper into it, so I’m hoping to do programmes for BBC1 and BBC 2 which will allow me to do that.” And looking further ahead he likes to think there’s the possibility of presenting; in the past he’s co-presented The Today Programme with Evan Davis and enjoyed that. “The nature of those jobs is that you may be around when they come up and you may not, or you may not be in fashion. I really enjoyed doing Today but it’s got a very well established and successful team and who knows, maybe in a few years when one of them has had enough?”Before leaving I had to ask one last question – how did one of the UK’s best known inquisitors like being on the other side of the microphone, either with this interviewer, or tougher ones? “This is tough enough! You are like David Frost, you’re very gentle and I suddenly hear myself in my head say, Oh! I shouldn’t have said that!” he laughs.A typically disarming but perceptive reply from a man whose long experience of the political interview has made him appreciate what it’s like to be the hunted, as well as the hunter. No doubt he’ll continue to stalk his prey in the corridors of Westminster.