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Questioning Mr Blair

Gary Smith | 12:57 UK time, Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Should the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, have asked about UK politics during press conferences over the last three days given by Tony Blair with the Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese leaders?

Nick’s questions - used in his reports on TV and radio bulletins - have sparked a heated debate on his blog. Some contributors feel they were totally inappropriate - one brands him “an embarrassment to his profession.” Others are supportive - one says that asking about important domestic issues is valid “anywhere at any time.”

Tony Blair during a press conference in BeirutIt’s a tricky issue. On foreign trips like this, a group of newspaper journalists, broadcasters and agency reporters travels with the prime minister, and - often to the bemusement of foreign leaders - takes every opportunity to pester Mr Blair about what’s going on back in the UK.

At the BBC we try to do more than this. We have huge numbers of different programmes and platforms and audiences with different interests, and we try to cater for everyone.

So yes, of course we ask about domestic politics; but we cover the diplomatic story as well, allowing editors back in London to decide which angle is the right one at a particular time for their audience.

In the Middle East over the past few days, we’ve had Nick Robinson and Five Live’s John Pienaar in place to pursue domestic politics; but we’ve also had the Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, and correspondents based in the region such as James Reynolds, Matthew Price and Alan Johnston on the diplomatic story.

The reporting across three days has reflected different aspects of the developing stories.

So for example the BBC One Ten O’clock News on Sunday night led with Gordon Brown’s interview with Andrew Marr, and included Tony Blair’s reaction to it, which Nick Robinson then talked about from Jerusalem. But the programme also included a report by Jeremy Bowen on the substance of what the prime minister had discussed with Mahmoud Abbas.

Would it have been right for Nick Robinson NOT to have taken the opportunity to ask Mr Blair about what his Chancellor had said? Surely not – domestic politics can’t be put on hold while the prime minister travels abroad.

Political junkies will remember only too well Margaret Thatcher’s performance on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris in November 1990 after she’d failed to beat Michael Heseltine outright in the first vote for the Conservative Party leadership.

The BBC’s fearless chief political correspondent, John Sergeant, pounced with his killer question: “Mrs Thatcher, could I ask you to comment?”

Her spokesman Bernard Ingham then brushed Sergeant to one side to allow Mrs Thatcher to declare her intention to fight on. Two days later, she resigned.

Who remembers now that she was actually attending a meeting about European security? I’m sure John Sergeant was right NOT to ask about that.

When the history books are written about this past weekend, will Mr Blair’s Middle East trip be remembered as a moment when negotiations restarted between the different sides in the Middle East, or as a significant staging post on Mr Blair’s way out of Downing Street. As the old reporting cliché goes, only time will tell.

But at least Nick Robinson’s questions opened up the possibilities for alternative versions of history.


  • 1.
  • At 02:03 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

This is not a tricky issue.
Nick Robinson appears to have been more interested in drawing attention to himself than to an important UK problem.
Something like a wedding guest asking the groom about his previous girl friends.

  • 2.
  • At 03:21 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • nah wrote:

We all know the BBC is incapable of admitting that it can be wrong. Let's leave it at that.

  • 3.
  • At 03:47 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • David wrote:

As I read Nick's Blog (and the responses) he seemed to be called to account on a couple of points:
1) The question - was it meaningful in the context of where the PM was

2) Nick's interpretation of the PMs response.

For point one - I agree it is a "tricky one"

For point 2 - you answer appears to hinge on history allowing you to retrospectively decide that the question was prescient. Now deciding 2 years later that it was or wasn't ok, is dodging the issue.

Nick chose to interpret the PMs response quite specifically as a slur on the chancellor. This is an interpretation that is most certainly open to question and has not been backed up by any other evidence as presented at the time. Again, one commenter came up with a perfectly plausable explanation for the PMs terse response. Yet this was rejected as a possibility (by Nick - he chose the alternative interpretation remember) on the basis of what exactly?

The PM does not lack for the 'vision thing', he certainly likes to be seen to be statesmanly, and he has been criticised for that approach (instead of concentrating on domestic policy). So the commenter’s interpretation is seemingly MORE valid than Nick's. So how about you get Nick to explain his thinking point by point so we can see the strength of his argument. I for one am not convinced that he got it in anyway right on this occasion.

  • 4.
  • At 04:41 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Mark B wrote:

Surely the point is not whether reporters should have the prerogative to question our leaders when they are out of the country, but rather the context in which this is done. While it is necessary and proper to continue to report on domestic politics, is it not inappropriate to do so in the presence of a foreign leader, who is meeting with the Prime Minister in his diplomatic capacity? I was rather disappointed that Mr Robinson did not see fit to make this distinction. Both the UK government and the BBC have a responsibilty to uphold their high standards on the world stage.

  • 5.
  • At 04:57 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Dr Peter Jenkin Morgan JP wrote:

Will you BBC people never stop? The old adage "never let the facts get in the way of a good story" seems more and more to apply to this organisation these days. No interest in what is going on here and now, lets just see if a question can catch the PM offguard and make him annoyed one more time. For God's sake grow up you reporters and media people. You have a responsibiities as well and that starts with reporting the news rather than following the cult of personality and trying to be the next journalist of the moment. You do your 'profession' a great disservice by behaving as you do. More responsibility and indeed a little more respect and humility wouldn't go amiss!

  • 6.
  • At 05:01 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

The question carries with it the implication that such petty domestic issues are more important than the search for peace in the Middle East. There are plenty of searching questions Mr Robinson could have asked about that search, without being so gratuitously discourteous to his hosts in those countries.

After all, if, after all the opportunities he has had, he still has not managed to ask the right question about Mr Blair's resignation, and therefore needs even more opportunities, one might be led to question his competence and value for money as a journalist....

  • 7.
  • At 05:51 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Julian B-Jones wrote:

Blair has proven himself as a master of deceit. Blair talks strong about the need to spread democracy, but shrinks from its practice for his own political expedience. It is crucial that the BBC consistently try to hold our leader to account with no holding back. When the BBC holds back, it is failing at its proper mission.

The BBC has faults. For example, there is too much general cynicism in BBC reporting, and this blunts its influence when it is really needed. In its attitude, it is too conservative, so failed leaders like Major and Blair are able to hold on to power.

Blair has been found out. For the sake of us all, don't hold back now.

J B-Jones, Hereford, UK.

  • 8.
  • At 06:22 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Phillip Brown wrote:

Whatever many of us may think of Tony Blair common courtesy would not be amiss in your reporters. As usual the BBC defends itself with doubtful arguments and little respect for the intelligence of its listeners.

  • 9.
  • At 06:35 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

I watched the coverage by the Beeb and also from other media outlets. Foreign media concentrated not on the questions asked at the news conference, sorry Nick, but on the local reaction to the visit.

Nick's question was for the domestic audience and deserved to be asked. If political correspondents are not entitled to ask question on domestic issues we will see every PM or minister who finds themselves in trouble zipping off on foreign visits for a bit of peace and quiet.

Personally I enjoy Nick's pieces, he like many of his collegues manages to inject humour and life into what would otherwise be a very dull subject. Keep up the good work.

  • 10.
  • At 06:57 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Gormless! Completely gormless!
It is a measure of today’s standards that there should be any question about it.

  • 11.
  • At 06:59 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • James O'C wrote:

It would seem that previous commentator Mark B is roughly along the right lines, to my mind. While it stands to reason that domestic business does not halt with the PM being abroad, focusing on this during a diplomatic mission pertaining both to a peace process and the immense suffering of the people of Palestine is an excrescence, and eschewing this issue is to insult a people who may already feel entirely betrayed by Britain and its administration. It is a matter of simple courtesy, and one which may well relate back to the unique arrogance of the English traveller, be he journalist or no.

  • 12.
  • At 07:40 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

The BBC apparently has a behaviour problem. Is the origin at the top or is there lack of control and insufficient talent at the various levels? It may be that there are more reporters than the available news justifies.
It certainly seems that the licence payers are becoming restive.

  • 13.
  • At 09:06 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Ron Norton wrote:

Nick Robinson and his fellow cronies (The Downing Street Journalists) must sit together on their away day trips and decide who is going to ask what, and what spin to use when reporting the answers.

You the BBC have become a RED TOP newspaper. You sensationalise, distort the truth, you try to predict, we are expected to listen to your journalists thoughts as to what they think it all means. If you listen to ITV news, Sky news etc. there seems to be a common thread, one could think there is colusion. Your opinion is no more valid than mine.

I believe you send your people on courses to learn how to present their pieces to camera. Why?

All we want are facts, the people being interviewed treated with respect. We can make up our own mind.

The Blair/Brown thing is a non event!

Only you think it is worthy of hours of air time on the TV and radio.

One suggestion I would make is, don't quote any conversations with "someone close to the PM" or any of the other invisable people, unless they are named by you during the piece that goes to air.

  • 14.
  • At 09:29 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

I don't think Nick Robinson is any more of an embarrassment to BBC than any of its other reporters. If Prime Minister Blair thought the question out of order, all he had to do was decline to answer it and move on to the next question.

When the history books are written about this past weekend, it will be remembered as a mere footnote when the least influential leaders of their three respective countries met, one a lame duck Prime Minister detested by his own party, one a Prime Minister blamed for losing a war he started and should have one, and one a Prime Minister who has no power at all in his country and is daily in grave jeopardy of being assassinated by his own population. In short, it was a big nothing.

  • 15.
  • At 11:44 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • kim wrote:

I don't understand this debate.

Nick Robinson is not a foreign correspondent or even the ME correspondent. He doesn't get into the details of tax credits or ASBOs, he's the Westminster Village correspondent. And his questioning will follow. Don't blame him. Tune in or tune out.

You might question whether or not he was the right person to ask the questions. But you might equally ask whether a PM, when he flies overseas (whether it be to Beirut or Cliff's villa) has a right to avoid those questions. Wouldn't that be easy ?

Personally, while the ME conflict is more serious and fundamental, I'm more interested in the PMs comments on his political survival. While he may have much to say on the ME, we've seen it before, nothing new, and capacity to change things is sadly diminished. Whereas the recent domestic events were new, and TB has some say in their resolution.

Asking the PM about things within his control is not enirely wrong, but granting him protection for a platform to disseminate platitudes most certainly is.


  • 16.
  • At 12:38 AM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Tim Jackson wrote:


The fact that Nic chooses to interpret TB’s obvious annoyance and frustration at a question about a petty squabbling back home, when he is trying to broker a peace deal that could save the lives of hundreds of people, does not make his interpretation right.

Here is another interpretation for you. Nic has seen the (mainly negative) response to his line of questioning. He is hurt by it, but not man enough to accept he was wrong. Instead he asks a close colleague to ‘leap to his defence’ with a thin interpretation of events that shows Nic as ‘just’.

How’s that for an interpretation?

Nic is wrong, the beeb is wrong. Just admit it and start to gain the respect of your viewers (and customers) again.

  • 17.
  • At 10:03 AM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Gregor Campbell wrote:

Whilst it may have been a judgement call for Nick Robinson to make - and I happen to think it was wrong- I am becoming annoyed at the BBC journalists who shout questions at ministers on any issue when the minister is on the other side of the street. It is a pointless exercise as neither we public, nor the journalist, expect the minister to answer and we think worse of the journalist for asking in this odd way. (notice that the journalist always records his shouting). Please BBC stop this tabloid style of work.

The Prime Minister was on a serious tour of the Middle East to shore up support for a lasting cease fire and to get the peace process going. He was on a very important foreign peace mission where he really feels he can change the dynamics for lasting peace. Nick Robinson is a brilliant journalist but by trying to deflect the serious purpose of Mr Blair's Israli Palestinian Lebanese trip to domestic political concerns was not very wise. The internal squabblings in the Labour Party and the TUC should be addressed internally not abroad.

  • 19.
  • At 12:32 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • m webster wrote:

I echo the point made by J Westerman.
There is far too much media these days for the amount of news that there actually is. Some downsizing is in order methinks, and this doesn't just apply to the BBC. Journalists appear far too self-important, obsessed with themselves and each other, and appear to inhabit a turgid soap-opera world, which unfortunately they insist on inflicting on the rest of us.

They are also totally unable to accept the sort of criticisms that they spent their working lives inflicting on everyone else. In the words of Corporal Jones from Dads Army: 'they don't like it up 'em!'.

  • 20.
  • At 03:42 PM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

There is a case for saying that J B-J 12/09/06 goes too far. In the long term, no organisation can hope to achieve its purposes if it obtains the reputation of behaving like a bull in a china shop.
Then there is the point, of course, that if the PM were a master of deceit we would not know about it.

  • 21.
  • At 10:55 PM on 16 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

In my opinion Pancha Chandra (13/9/06) sums up the position very neatly but in a kinder way than Nick R deserves. This was not a situation suitable in any way for the intrusion of specifically UK politics. N R may or may not be brilliant: by not giving this situation the benefit of any doubt that he had in his mind about suitability he has not enhanced his reputation for common sense.

  • 22.
  • At 08:23 PM on 21 Sep 2006,
  • J B-Jones wrote:

J Westerman is wrong. Mr Blair is capable of fielding any question. If his leadership is under question because his colleagues are at odds with his policy in the Middle East, then questions about his leadership should be asked.
Secondly, I think he really does qualify for a mastership. After all, he is still your Prime Minister, and he still has you rooting for him.
Julian B-Jones, Hereford, UK.

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