How Nick Robinson overcame tragedy and cancer to fulfil his boyhood dream

The veteran political journalist takes over Radio 4's flagship Today programme this week

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We meet, just a week or so before his big day, at the Robinson family home – a typical north London, three-storey terrace in a quiet street, just up the road from the old Arsenal football stadium. And make no mistake, it will be a big day for 52-year-old former BBC political editor Nick Robinson – the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition, no less.

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So is the Today programme’s newest presenter ready for his new routine of 3am alarm calls? “I’ve debated long and hard whether you can really practise getting up at three in the morning, but what people say is that the harder thing is going to bed at 8.30 in the evening…”

Which is why Robinson’s younger son Harry has just discovered he hasn’t got a bedroom any more. Harry’s room at the top of the house – equipped with a new-fangled daylight-emitting alarm clock, apparently – has now become Nick’s room.

But no matter how well planned and prepared for, 3am starts will be physically taxing. So is it all too soon for a man still recovering from punishing treatment for lung cancer? He says absolutely not. “The medical problem was cancer, and the good news is the surgery cleared that up. As far as anyone can say it’s not a problem – you still have to have the checks – it’s not a problem, which is tremendous.”

But there is a problem, and it’s an especially tricky one for a radio presenter: his voice. Nerve damage, a risk of the surgery, has left him with a voice that is not what it was, he says, one that is unlikely to fully recover and will always need to be looked after carefully.

He still sees the speech therapist he met in the immediate aftermath of his operation earlier this year and has a battery of techniques and exercises to keep up. Fifteen minutes under a towel inhaling steam twice a day and vocal sound repetitions, which to the average passer-by could easily sound like the mutterings of a madman – as happened recently on a Manchester street as Robinson prepared for a recording. “So I’ve developed a technique where if I have to mutter to myself, I put my earphones in, and people think you’re talking into the phone. Ha!”

So with due care and attention, Robinson is hopeful, not to say confident, that his voice – which still sounds distinctively him – will not be a long-term issue for his new position on the Today programme. He’ll be “dropping a word in the nation’s ear” as his one-time mentor, legendary Today presenter Brian Redhead once famously put it. But how did a 30-year career that once seemed destined to take Robinson to the higher reaches of BBC management end up on the other side of the microphone, so to speak?

When I first met him back in the late 1980s, I was a producer on Brass Tacks and he was a BBC trainee – plainly highly capable even then, and already earmarked for greater things. Our next encounter occurred when I became editor of Panorama in 1994 and inherited Nick as one of my deputies. His grasp of politics – and of BBC politics – saved my bacon more than once and again, if you’d asked me, I’d have put money on him rising swiftly up the BBC’s greasy pole.

But in 1995 he was tempted away, to cross to the other side of the camera as a political correspondent. It was an unexpected move that took most observers by surprise, but hidden inside the thoughtful political strategist was a performer just waiting to get out. “As is relatively well known, I was a student politician [he was once chairman of the Young Conservatives] at university. But actually, less talked about but much more importantly, I was a student debater… The Oxford Union is well worth taking the piss out of for its self-importance and pomposity, but there is no greater training.”

Within weeks he’d “got the bug”, and really never looked back. Stints on 5 Live and, critically, the then-nascent News 24 (the forerunner of the BBC News channel), where he became chief political correspondent, convinced anyone watching that Robinson was a genuinely gifted communicator of politics. Plus he had unique appeal and a very distinctive look – those glasses! The old enemy over at ITN subsequently hired him as their political editor.

And predictably, there’s nothing like success over at ITV to make BBC bosses want you more, and so it was that after three years on the “other” side, Robinson returned to the BBC as political editor in 2005.

So after ten years on the political front line, what does Robinson bring to his new job? It was a period not without its moments to remember. Like the time he so upset George W Bush at a White House press conference (below) about the way the Gulf War was going that the President was reduced to repeated finger-wagging. And the time when he outed cabinet ministers as conspirators in a plot to unseat Gordon Brown – without telling anyone at the BBC he intended to do that. “Well, what you get [from BBC management] is total radio silence, while people consult each other about whether this was a triumph or a disaster…”

So, fresh from his various “triumphs”, how does Nick Robinson see himself? Is he a natural risk-taker? “Ha! In life generally? Not at all. But there’s a bit of me journalistically that thinks, ‘I’m sick of this, let’s just do it!’ I hope I’ve got a nose for a bit of mischief and I don’t find confrontation frightening. There are a lot of people in journalism who are very good but haven’t been shouted at by a spin doctor or fallen out with a minister… I think there are some people who think if it’s quiet they’ve succeeded. That is not my view of the world.”

So what kind of interviewer will Robinson be? Paxman? Naughtie? Dimbleby? Or even his new colleague John Humphrys?

“Brian Walden [late ex-MP and presenter of LWT’s Weekend World] is my hero. There are current people including John [Humphrys] who I am an admirer of, but I would have to say Walden. There are days when interviews are an accountability mechanism, you are in the public stocks for something you have done or said and it’s our job to hold you to account, which John is the master at. But I also think there should be a place where we can say, ‘Come and think out loud and tell us what you are musing on.’”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTXYlJNZ7tU

With sentiments echoing those of his one-time boss, former BBC director-general John Birt, Robinson worries that the default agenda of so many political interviews – get a headline about today’s political story – is preventing the kind of conversation that politicians need to have with the public from occurring. It’s something he hopes Today can begin to fix.

But would today’s spin doctors let their politicians engage in those kind of open, thoughtful, discursive interviews? “It has to be a virtuous circle, doesn’t it? If it ends up with a front-page humiliation and a climb-down, then no. But if a minister comes on and thinks, it helps the debate. If you are a radical trying to change things, you have to have a discourse with the public that changes minds. I think we’ve got to find a way of saying you can think out loud and tell us what’s on your mind and say, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s a great answer, and the public love it when a politician on Today says, ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’”

And where does the balance of power between politicians and media rest today? “Politicians have a lot of power, because there is so much choice. What they have become ruthless at is to pick and choose outlets to suit themselves.”

Robinson is plainly looking forward to Today: “There has always been a degree to which television has an artificial performance to it. I sometimes used to look at myself and think I am impersonating a man appearing on the television, this is what people on the television do. The joy of radio is that it is a conversation, a chat to one person in their bath or brushing their teeth or driving their car.”

But as he takes his seat in the Today studio Robinson will not just be fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime; he’ll be struggling to contain his emotions. He was initially attracted to journalism and broadcasting by hours spent with his best friend’s dad, who became his mentor. That was former Today programme presenter Brian Redhead. The best friend was Will Redhead, who Robinson had known from the age of eight. Will, after whom Robinson named his eldest son, died aged 18, along with another friend, James Nelson, in 1983 in a car crash in France that left Robinson with severe burns, and the only survivor. He wells up (as do I) when we discuss it.

“Yes, even talking about it now. Today is not just a radio programme. It’s a huge thing because of my best friend. I still miss him, I will be thinking about him.” It will truly be the biggest day of Nick Robinson’s career – so far!

Steve Hewlett presents The Media Show on Radio 4

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