Robinson robust in countering claims of bias

Political journalist Nick Robinson mounted a strong defence both of the BBC and of his own impartiality when he visited Queen Elizabeth’s School. 

In the latest talk organised by Year 12 pupil Adrian Burbie under the auspices of QE’s Politics Society, Mr Robinson urged boys to broaden their own thinking by engaging with ideas with which they disagreed. And he also spoke of his concerns about the deleterious effects of the internet on political discourse.

Speaking to a large audience in the Main Hall, the presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme reflected on his career, which has included working as a deputy editor at Panorama, as Chief Political Correspondent at the BBC and as Political Editor firstly for ITV and then for the BBC. The talk was also attended by pupils from a QE partner school, St Albans High School for Girls.

Among the highlights, he said, was his challenge of Vladimir Putin on Russia’s human rights record at a conference at which Putin was urging African nations to improve their human rights.

""He also spoke of the famous run-in with American President George W Bush in 2006. Bush showed dissatisfaction when asked if he was in denial about the situation in Iraq, snapping back at Mr Robinson with "It's bad in Iraq. Does that help?"

He had another run-in with President Bush at a press conference at Camp David, when the president asked him: "You still hanging around?" He then suggested to Mr Robinson, with reference to the heat, that "Next time you should cover your bald head". As the president walked away, Mr Robinson replied: "I didn't know you cared", to which Bush responded: "I don't".

He spoke of his parents and of his maternal grandparents fleeing the Nazis – a party who were, he reminded the boys, democratically elected. Mr Robinson read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford and was president of the university’s Conservative Association: it was important, he said, for him to be involved in politics from a young age. Indeed, he said indifference towards politics leads to extremism and had made possible the rise of the Nazis.

""While conceding that the BBC may not be perfectly impartial, he noted that it – and he – were accused of bias by the supporters of whoever he interviewed, with the allegations coming from both left and right. The corporation, he said, “tries not to be partial”, unlike US networks such as Fox News, which Mr Robinson criticised heavily.

He did, however, acknowledge that the BBC could do more to represent the views of the country outside London on topics such as dissatisfaction with immigration and concern over gay marriage. Most people at the BBC were middle-class and from London and the south east, which leads inevitably to a socially and economically liberal slant.

Mr Robinson also took a number of questions. Asked if his presidency of the Conservative Association at Oxford compromised his ability to be impartial, he said he despaired of the “internet mob” who were unable to cope with opinions that differed from their own. In one example, he had recently interviewed a British Medical Association representative about the junior doctor strikes and asked: “Aren’t you doctors just being greedy?” He received an intense backlash and abuse on Twitter, notwithstanding the fact that he had merely asked a question, not made an assertion.

""Although a user of Twitter, he criticised it and many of the young people on it, stating that it too often functions as an ‘echo chamber’ where people only ‘follow’ people they agree with in order to shut down opposing ideas, thus avoiding having to deal with them.

To counteract such tendencies, he encouraged QE pupils actively to seek out ideas they disagree with in order to challenge themselves and understand why people think like that. “If you hate the Daily Mail, read it – understand why it speaks to so many people. If you think the Guardian is a load of left-wing tosh, read it – so you can understand why people think that way,” he said.

Mr Robinson also donated signed copies of his books and CDs to the School: they are currently on display in The Queen’s Library.