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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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.