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Nick Robinson: "I don't have many [political] views left"

The BBC's political editor tackles questions of impartiality and bias.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson has got a book out, and the Telegraph is serialising extracts from it.

In one of them, Robinson tackles the thorny issue of BBC bias - something that he gets accused of perhaps more often than most because of his time as chairman of the Young Conservatives in his youth.

He writes:

I am not one of those who thinks – and there are too many who do – that if the BBC is being attacked by both sides it must be in the right place. The BBC appointed a Europe editor to improve its coverage after both Eurosceptics and Euro‑enthusiasts complained, rightly, that its EU reporting was unsatisfactory. Those who have complained about the BBC’s handling of the build-up to the war in Iraq or mass immigration have something in common. They believe their views were treated as marginal or extreme, only to be seen later as mainstream.

This last point is central to Robinson's understanding of how the BBC can be perceived as impartial. He argues that :

The biggest cause of viewers feeling any broadcaster is biased is not hearing views from people like themselves. Quite naturally, they assume that the reason they don’t is that their views are deemed unacceptable.

And goes on to say that:

Impartiality means not just reporting without prejudice and debating without limits, but making sure that viewers can see and hear people like them

This is why the corporation has made greater efforts on equality of representation, he says, but also why it now makes a much greater effort to invite and host contributions from its readers. That's why you can't watch a programme now without being told its Twitter hashtag, or asked to text in your views. When it's overdone, you can't help thinking of David Mitchell and Robert Webb's "Send Us Your Reckons" sketch:

What is interesting, though, is that Robinson doesn't appear to agree that the BBC has really failed significantly on impartiality. It's always the viewers who have that perception, it seems from his account, never the corporation's error. In fact, he seems to suggest the idea of an unbiased BBC is more fantasy than reality:

The BBC has tended to behave as if impartiality is like virginity – something you’ve either still got or you’ve lost. My view has always been that impartiality is rather more like marital bliss – something to believe in and strive for but which you must accept you will almost certainly never quite achieve.

Does he achieve it himself? The fact that he holds forth on the subject in this extract from the book with what can only be described as a rather condescending, smug tone, suggests that he believes so. However, he suggests that after so long, he doesn't really have any views of his own to suppress when reporting:

I’m sometimes asked whether it’s really possible to switch your own political views on and off. The glib answer, though there’s a good deal of truth in it, is that after 25 years of looking at both sides of an argument I don’t really have many views left.

Nick Robinson, opinion-less automaton? I just don't buy that, I'm afraid.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.