In an almost thuggish way, Tom Watson said that Nick Robinson didn’t report the phone hacking scandal enough because he was ‘favouring the Conservatives’ to put it more delicately.
I know how he feels. It annoyed me that Ed Miliband was getting the headlines on the hacking scandal over true experts like myself who have published research on ‘data misuse’ laws. I made the BBC clear of this dissatisfaction when they basically ignored my expertise.
But let us look at the news articles since 1995 on claims of bias against Nick Robinson as evidence.
March 1995 – Claims of bias were made against Nick Robinson by Labour when he sent a memo, as they saw it, trying to cover up the preferential treatment where the BBC Panorama programme, which Robinson was deputy editor of, interviewed John Major as Prime Minister, but did not offer the same prominence to the other leaders.
August 1995 – The London Evening Standard publishes a story, titled, ‘Labour sees red over new BBC reporter’, which highlights the fact that since March 1995 the party felt that Nick Robinson’s presentation of facts on Panorama were biased in favour of the Tories.
March 2003 – In the Times Nick Robinson, who is currently the ITV political editor, notes in an article there might be a problem with Labour’s perception of him. Highlighting the times that Peter Mandelson would be complaining to the Director General of the BBC about his apparent bias.
May 2003 – For the first time on record ‘anti-Tory bias’ and ‘Nick Robinson’ come together. This time in it is in The Times, with him commenting on the pressure being on Greg Dyke at the BBC and not himself, as Robinson is still working for ITV.
This all builds up to a shock confession:
October 2003 – The Independent runs an article, ‘I do not regret my Tory past, Nick Robinson, ITV’s News’s Political Editor’ which shows that Robinson was once significantly involved with the Conservative movement. The article says he has received claims of bias from both sides, which I might expect having spoken with the editor of my local paper who received the same, but unless the Conservatives have a different word for ‘bias’ I see little evidence of this in my brief search!
I will not look further into the articles, as I became politically active around 2002 in the Labour Party, even speaking to Nick on the Radio 5 Live about how a speech by Tony Blair hit a cord with me, just before he went to ITV I think – On Radio 5 Live he and Brian Hayes were my favourite presenters of that era. On his move to ITV I did start to think he was biased against the Labour Government, but then I would expect no different, as the ITV News programmes that he was reporting for have always seemed to me to be the Tabloid Newspaper of Evening TV, changing the tone of the programme to try to capture the public mood regardless of accuracy.
As I am now a Professional, it is this revelation in October 2003 that strikes me the most salient, even above all the past claims of bias. It is unethical for any professional to take up any form of employment where there can be a ‘perception of bias’, whether they are a former government minister taking up a position in a publicly funded body in the same area afterwards, or a sports official who is refereeing a match where a first-line relative is of the same nationality as one of the competitors.
So, in essence, however much I like him, as someone who famously got insulted for holding an apparently undesirable physical characteristic, by George W Bush of all people, I think he should seriously consider his position.
Even if he is perfectly capable of, on most days, creating a perception of impartiality in line with BBC guidance, is it worth the constant claims of bias against him, and this the questioning of his professionalism, to be in an environment where he can be easily perceived to be biased?
Concluding the issue on the assumption of ‘good faith’ on the part of Robinson, I would say that the reason this perceived bias is so persistent is that Nick is likely to draw on the same social networks that took him into the Conservative Party in the first place, so therefore he is more likely to represent a ‘Tory perspective’ than a Labour one.
So I’d like the BBC and other media outlets to take steps to ensure that it is not the same people from the Old Boys’ Networks that get represented in the media, but many others who have expertise but might not normally make it into public life. If they were to do this then the perceptions of bias, whether ‘left-wing’, ‘liberal’, ‘all-White’, or whatever, would start to disappear.