The calls are usually polite. There’s rarely much more than the faintest whiff of bullying. They often start with a sprinkling of sugar: “Thought your piece was very fair last night.” Then, though, it’s down to business: “Dave/Nick/Ed are very concerned that…” It’s the spin doctor on the line.
What then follows is an explanation of what is making the party leader in question cross about the BBC’s coverage of their latest rhetorical triumph. Perhaps they’ve picked up rumours that it won’t be leading the news or don’t like one of the shots we’ve used or and this, dear readers, news is the cause of the greatest angsting – their wife wasn’t happy that I rated their man’s performance rather less gushingly than they did.
I listen carefully. I promise to consider what I’ve heard. If pressed, I point out that it’s my job and not theirs to report the news and that they can always apply next time there’s a vacancy.
This is day-to-day life in the forced and often troubled marriage between broadcasters and politicians. Most of the time the arguments are no more toxic than those domestic rows about whose turn it is to do the washing up or to drive home after the party instead of having another drink. Tempers can fray, though. I was once woken up at one o’clock in the morning by a call from a press officer complaining about a report I hadn’t done and hadn’t even heard.
My initial courtesy was followed by a brusque “Just because Gordon’s got you out of bed to shout about what he heard on the radio, don’t think you can get me out of bed and shout at me!”
From time to time these domestics can get serious. Remember Tony Blair and the battle with the BBC over the reporting of those missing WMD? Or Margaret Thatcher’s complaint that the BBC was supplying the oxygen of publicity to terrorists? Or Harold Wilson’s that the Beeb had deliberately scheduled Steptoe and Son to stop Labour voters going to the polls?
Yes, he really did do that. What’s more he managed to get it re-scheduled. I’ve been studying and writing about the history of those rows. They date back to the very birth of the BBC.
The founder of the Beeb, John Reith, and a young Winston Churchill began two lifetimes of mutual loathing after falling out over the General Strike of 1926. Churchill thought it would be monstrous if the new national broadcaster wasn’t used as an instrument of propaganda to break a strike. Reith thought it would be equally monstrous if it was. It didn’t help that the Beeb’s man was a dour puritan who disapproved of Churchill’s relaxed and dissolute lifestyle.
The government then – like pretty much every government since – thought that it was standing up for the national interest and not simply for its own political interests. Politicians simply can’t understand why broadcasters don’t act as their cheerleader or reflect the views of those who think they’re making a terrible error. After the battle over the General Strike came Suez and the Falklands and, of course, Iraq. Others are sure to follow.
They all probably began with a polite phone call between people who have to spend an awful lot of time in each other’s company, often when they’re stressed and haven’t had enough sleep. They’re calls that go wrong when people forget what any marriage-guidance counsellor knows – the importance of boundaries.
Both sides would do well to pay heed to words I heard from a minister who’d recently lost his job. “How are you?” I enquired. “So much better” came the reply. “I’m not exhausted all the time and I haven’t shouted at anyone for weeks.”
Nick Robinson is the BBC’s political editor. His book Live from Downing Street is published by Bantam Press on 25 October