A Ringside Seat: the autobiography
Michael Brunson Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp, £18.99
By the time Michael Brunson retired as ITN's political editor, he was better known than most politicians. For 14 years, he had recorded every daily twist and turn of the political dramas unfolding at Westminster: the fall of Margaret Thatcher; the rise and fall of John Major; the end of Neil Kinnock; the rise of Tony Blair. The politicians came and went, but Brunson was always there.
Why did we watch him in such large numbers until he moved into television wilderness with the scrapping of News at Ten? The answer highlights his strengths as a television journalist, but explains, also, why his book is nowhere near as gripping as those breathless reports. We switched on to find out what had happened and what would happen next. The combined draw of the dramatic events themselves and Brunson's ability to convey the excitement in short bursts became a required daily fix. Sometimes his reports were more exciting than the events he was describing, but mostly his exuberant style chimed with the high politics of our times. We needed to know if Thatcher was still secure, if Major would survive the night, if Blair and Brown had really fallen out that day. He was always well informed, speaking privately to the people who mattered.
Uniquely, he provided a sense of how the drama would unfold the following day. One of his favourite tricks was to tell Trevor Macdonald what the agenda-setting Sun would make of it all on its front pages the next morning. "William Hague won't like what he reads tomorrow, Trevor. The Sun is portraying him as a dead parrot." Another device was to produce, as if from nowhere, a secret document and brandish it in front of his camera. "Trevor, I have here the select committee's report which ministers will not see until tomorrow . . ." I have noticed that one or two correspondents have tried to copy his demonstrative style, and ended up looking rather silly. Only the original artist can pull these things off.
As a writer, Brunson is unlikely to have as many imitators. He manages to make the events, in retrospect, seem duller than they really were. On the page, they really do become one damned event after another. There is no attempt to make any sense of it all. Why did the Tory party fall out over Europe? Why did Major not make more of his unlikely election win in 1992? How different in substance is new Labour to the party led by John Smith? Brunson does not ask the questions, let alone attempt to answer them. Similarly, the personalities that he got to know so well function in a political vacuum. Major is moody, Sir Geoffrey Howe convivial and Nigel Lawson aloof. They could be characters in any soap opera, not specifically the Westminster variety.
On the rare occasions when Brunson makes a judgement, though, he hits the mark. His chapter on Labour's spin-doctors should be read by all those clever types who have become obsessed by both "spin" and "Tony's cronies", the two great red herrings when attempting to understand this government. Brunson points out that he has come across similar "spinners" in the US and in previous British governments.
On the whole, he adopts a modest tone throughout the book, making reference to his competitors' exclusives and not mentioning many of his own; but he rightly makes the point that people like himself are capable of separating the substance from the spin. He also suggests, correctly, that every prime minister has an entourage and exploits his or her powers of patronage.
John Cole, the former BBC political editor, who was a print journalist as well as a broadcaster, wrote a much more substantial book when he retired. He was at least as interested in explaining why politicians behaved in the way they did as narrating each event as it happened. This book can be summarised in one of those short soundbites that Brunson so skilfully wove into his compelling three-minute television narratives: "A unique TV journalist, who reported vividly on a lot of fast-moving stories. Michael Brunson, News at Ten (deceased), Westminster. Er, that's it."