Nick Robinson on political crisis, cancer and the long-tail of grief

February 4, 2022. Series 5. Episode 40

Nick Robinson is a man who for more than 25 years has had a seat in the front row of so many political crises.  First as a news producer and then in front of the camera as political editor for ITN and the BBC Nick really has witnessed it all when it comes to Westminster drama.

Since 2015 Nick has also, of course, fronted Radio 4’s Today Programme, a role in which his piercing interview style has made him respected and feared by our politicians in equal measure.

But Nick is also someone who has faced down a personal crisis of the most dramatic and tragic nature. Aged just 18 whilst on holiday in France, he was involved in a head on car crash which instantly claimed the lives of his two friends James Nelson and Will Redhead. Nick was left  trapped in the back seat as the car exploded into flames.  How he escaped is still a mystery to him.  How he came to terms with such an appalling trauma is one of the issues we discuss in depth here.

Another is the desperate moment in February 2015 when Nick was told by his doctor that he had lung cancer. He underwent emergency surgery and chemotherapy. Thankfully the tumour was removed but in the process the nerves leading to Nick’s vocal chords were damaged. He feared that he’d lost his voice forever – and with it the career he had worked so hard to build.

So, although this is a fascinating and revealing podcast about what Nick has seen and learnt about political crisis, it’s more usefully, I think,  a conversation about his approach to those challenges much closer to home. The Nick Robinson Crisis Formula is stoic and no-nonsense. But it’s also respectful to the ever-present danger …  that long tail of crisis that can suddenly whip around and hit you when you least expect it. Something Nick has experienced himself very recently.

My thanks to Nick for such a valuable conversation – and for giving us such a great end to Series 5.

 

Nick’s Crisis Cures: 

1. A hot bath – gets you relaxed, opens your mind to recovery.

2. Fresh Air – it’s a cliché but a walk round the park. Put the phone away, breathe and everything seems clearer.

3. Communication – if your crisis is caused by others, try to work out what’s going on in their head. See it from their perspective.

 

Links:

Election Notebook – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Election-Notebook-Inside-Britains-Personal/dp/0593075188

Live From Downing Street – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Live-Downing-Street-Nick-Robinson/dp/0857500007

 

Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm 

Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk

 

Full transcript:

 

00:00:00.00 Music in

 

00:00:19.12 Andy:

Hello, and welcome to Crisis, What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, the former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and a one-time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders. And I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far, far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.

 

00:00:48.12 Andy:

So on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health experts and advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit. All of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips. And all with the straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.

 

00:01:19.05 Andy:

Crisis, What Crisis is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search for Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y on Spotify, and you’ll find some really great, and I hope useful, playlists. And if you enjoy what you enjoy here please subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.

 

00:01:48.05 Andy:

I’m delighted to say that my guest today is the renewed broadcaster Nick Robinson. A man who for more than twenty-five years has had a seat in the front row of so many political crises. First as a news producer and then in front of the camera as political editor for ITN and the BBC. When it comes to Westminster drama Nick really has seen it all. Since 2015, of course, Nick has been a Today Programme presenter. A role in which his piercing interview style means he is respected and feared by politicians in equal measure.

 

00:02:20.18 Andy:

But Nick is also someone who has faced down personal crisis of the most dramatic nature. Aged just eighteen and while on holiday in France, he survived a head-on car crash which claimed the lives of two of his friends. The car exploded in flames; Nick trapped on the back seat. How he escaped, how he survived, is still a mystery to him. Much later in February 2015 Nick faced, as he puts it with masterful understatement, another uncertainty where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Thankfully the tumour was removed and after a course of chemotherapy he was given the all-clear. But in the process the nerves leading to his vocal chords were damaged. Nick feared, in fact, that he’d lost his voice and therefore possibly his career forever. With the help of medics and a brilliant voice therapist though, he was eventually able to return to broadcast.

 

00:03:18.18 Andy:

So this is a conversation first about what Nick has learnt about those political crises that’s he’s covered that are timely, of course, as we’re in the midst of a pretty significant one right now as a result of the Number 10 parties. But it’s also a conversation about professional crises. That fear of losing his job through illness but also the scrutiny, and at times criticism, he’s faced as a broadcaster from politicians and the public. But much more significantly, it’s a conversation about Nick’s approach to personal crisis; to grief and to recovery.

 

00:03:53.11 Andy:

A Nick Robinson crisis management formula is, I think you’ll agree, rather brilliant: no nonsense but at the same time respectful to the ever present danger that that long tail of crisis can suddenly whip around when you least expect it. Nick describes how the memory of that appalling, tragic car crash, very recently in fact and quite suddenly, brought him to tears as he watched a film on TV. A moment that is deeply moving but that will also, I think, resonate with anyone who suffered grief or trauma in their life. But ultimately this is a crisis conversation about hope, about never giving up. About understanding what you have control of and what you don’t. And also about the importance of a sense of humour.

 

00:04:38.11 Andy:

So my sincere thanks to Nick Robinson for sharing his story and I hope that you enjoy this final episode of series five. You can hear the other 39 episodes of Crisis, What Crisis? Wherever you get your podcasts. Nick Robinson, welcome to Crisis, What Crisis?

 

00:04:55.05 Nick:

A pleasure to be here.

 

00:04:58.01 Andy:

Especially, I have to say, in this week of all weeks. In fact, we’ve had to move, quite understandably, this chat a couple of times because of the journalistic gift that keeps giving: Party gate. I mean, I assume you feel the word crisis is often overused in politics, Nick, but does it apply properly, do you think, to the Prime Minister’s current predicament?

 

00:05:25.14 Nick:

Oh, I think undoubtedly applies to this situation. If you’ve got the police investigating, if you’ve got people talking, as they are, about a possible challenge to his leadership but if above all, Andy, what this is about is not something obscure for the public to understand, I think way back to the Westland crisis that hit Mrs Thatcher back in the mid-eighties with Michael Heseltine, but this is something incredibly simple for people to get. Is someone living by the rules that they set for everybody else? And goes to the personality of a leader, who after all is only in that job because of that personality, it is a crisis. But you’re absolutely right, when you and I look back at your time in politics as well as in journalism, you occasionally go back to crises that dominated your life day after day, hour after hour and you can’t actually remember what it was about.

 

00:06:19.14 Andy:

Yes, of course.

 

00:06:20.04 Nick:

I mean, I do occasionally have things, I had one called, I think, List 99, which was about people in schools who were on a sex offenders register. And beyond that I’m damned if I can tell you what it’s about. But at the time it seemed to threaten the government…

 

00:06:34.00 Andy:

All encompassing, yeah. I mean, you’ve had the front row seat for so many political dramas over the years. What actually qualities then, with having seen so many and as you say, you know, ones that feel like a crisis in the moment but over time fade, what actually qualifies as a genuine political crisis for you? What are the boxes in your mind that need to be ticked for you to use that word?

 

00:07:01.05 Nick:

Well I think there are two crucial things: one is does it cut through? Dreadful cliche. Does someone you could go and bump into out on the street after this podcast, I could nip out of here, do they get what it’s about? And they just do. Parties, just incredibly easy for them to get. The second thing… and that means that the weariness that sometimes stops politics going on about a crisis, stops journalism, persuades editors to go, ‘You know this is boring our readers or our viewers or our listeners.’ That pact isn’t there in quite the same way it is about something more obscure.

 

00:07:38.24 Nick:

But the other thing, and again it’s an overused word, but is it existential? Does the crisis mean that the guy at the top could go? And it really does in the case of Boris Johnson. And the reason it’s such a difficult crisis for the Tory party to wrestle with for the country, is all the things that those people who liked Johnson, liked, are the reasons he’s in trouble. So if you’re a Brexiteer one of the reasons that you like Boris Johnson is he didn’t give a damn about the rules. He was the sort of person who said ‘I don’t care what Parliament thinks, I don’t really care what the courts think. I don’t care what Brussels think, I don’t care what the conventional wisdom of the elite says, I’m just going to do this thing.’

 

00:08:20.07 Nick:

Now that is the mirror image of what’s got him into trouble. We think on parties or what he insists on calling work events. And therefore the tricky thing, if you’re in the heart of this, is do you basically conclude as someone round Johnson, look in the end people bought him and bought that product so they’ll live with the downsides of it, so long as you sound a bit contrite. Or is it one of those moments where people go, ‘oh god, I didn’t know that was what you meant when you said he was like that, he’s got to go.’

 

00:08:54.05 Andy:

Yeah, what’s interesting about this one as well, is that it really is, wiring is another overused word in politics. It’s the backroom stuff that politicians work so hard to keep in the background. This is all about wiring isn’t it? This is all about the kind of function of Number 10 and what actually happens behind the door and how people actually work. I mean, you know a lot of those people, you know how that wiring works better than most people. Do you have any sympathy at all for them in this?  Do you have any sympathy at all for the idea that they were people working in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time? And that yes, shocking lack of judgement but that essentially the culture of that place is led by the prime minister and it is led by the prime minister, we’ve both spent plenty of time in that building from various angles. Do you have any sympathy for the staff in there, never mind the Prime Minister?

 

00:10:00.03 Nick:

Yeah.

 

00:10:00.14 Andy:

…or even the politicians. But for the staff?

 

00:10:03.16 Nick:

Look, I have sympathy actually for everybody involved in it, or at least understanding. I’m talking to you from a hotel room. I now travel round the country, I get trains, I get in cabs, I talk to people. Yes, I follow the rules, I put my mask on but I am occupying an entirely different world from people I know who are still effectively hiding from this disease. Who are stuck in their house and if they see one person a day they regard it as a bit risky? Now, if you take us, not to this period, but a period in which the entire country is locked down and you are a relatively young person whose basically is locked in Downing Street for many, many hours a day with a bunch of other people and you’re consciously taking that health risk but you’re doing it in what you think is a great and a noble cause. And you think it doesn’t make a lot of difference, I imagine, whether you get a cup of tea from a trolley or a bottle of wine.

 

00:11:02.11 Nick:

Whether it is that you’re having it indoor or whether you’re outdoor. Whether you’re meeting slightly at a distance to discuss a paper or whether you’re having a natter about how the day went at the end of the day while having a glass. I can absolutely see why those people, all of that blurs really. You forget the world beyond you and then crucially, Andy, you put the point which is, well is it really your job to worry about that thing? Or do you think the bloke at the top is the person? I mean, I think the hardest thing for Boris Johnson to deal with is the insistence, from lots of people I interviewed former government Chief Whip, you’ll remember Andrew Mitchell, this week on the Today Programme who said, this would never have happened under a Cameron or a May or a Major or a Thatcher. That’s what’s difficult for Boris Johnson, if it’s true.

 

00:11:52.01 Andy:

Yeah. I’ve asked myself that question with this one. And I have sympathy for the team in Downing Street because I do think you’re led by your bosses on these things and it’s perfectly clear that there was no attempt at getting the internal behaviours in the place where they should have been. Where I get to is walking into the garden for that party. I simply can’t see how anyone with any slightest of political antenna would not realise that that was just a bonkers thing to be doing.

 

00:12:36.00 Nick:

I think that’s absolutely right. So it’s one thing to say ‘we often meet in the garden’. And as you know, under all prime ministers, in this weird building that was not designed for modern office life, it is nicer and more convenient and pretty conventional to meet in the garden, that’s one thing. It’s another to say, well, while we’re in the garden we won’t have a cupper we’ll have a glass of wine. It is completely different to turn the music up, dance to Abba while there’s a suitcase full. That in any…

 

00:13:07.22 Andy:

Just in any world…

 

00:13:09.02 Nick:

…is a party. And anybody, as you say, would go, ‘didn’t we just tell people not to do this?’

 

00:13:15.19 Andy:

Literally on the same day. On the same day.

 

00:13:20.03 Nick:

But it reminds me of the fact that in organisations, and I know this is what you do now, but in organisations we’re all looking for the easy way out aren’t we? When things are inconvenient we want someone else to make it easier for us. To say, ‘Well don’t worry about that. That’s not a problem.’ And we’re all ready to cop out basically. And I think my boss, and he thinks his boss, and she thinks her boss and ultimately the big boss sees stuff and thinks, doesn’t appear to think any of it matters. Well, that’s the culture that’s created there.

 

00:13:56.22 Andy:

And that’s going to be the interesting thing about the Sue Gray report, I worked with Sue back in the day and she is a straight dealer to put it that way. And that, where does the responsibility begin and end, is going to be the key issue, I think. But we’ll see. Nick, we last worked together, albeit from opposite ends, what feels like an age ago now, in the golden days of the coalition, I’m going to say. A situation that many felt would actually be a never ending crisis when it happened and yet turned out, perhaps you might have a different view. But perhaps turned out to be the final oasis of calm and reasonableness before what feels like six or seven years of never-ending crisis in politics. Does it feel that way to you?

 

00:14:49.21 Nick:

Absolutely, yeah. I mean, it’s funny, isn’t it, looking back? The most dramatic time I had as a political reporter was that five days, I turned into a documentary you’ll remember, about the formation of the coalition. And so baked in to British politics was the idea that the advantage of our system, the advantage of our voting system was that it gave someone a clear mandate, a clear majority, the ability to clearly lead. But there was this kind of mindset that, ‘well oh god, deals, that must make for weakness’. Because after all if you got a deal between two competing parties, two big personalities in Cameron and Clegg, they’ll just try and reopen it every day. They’ll go to war every day; they’ll brief every day.

 

00:15:30.13 Nick:

In fact, once the deal was done it was remarkable stable. You might even call it grown up. There’s another little coda, Andy, which is why doesn’t the public think that? I gave a talk at a book festival, well the most famous of them all, Hay Book Festival, which was a great worthy discussion about why parties don’t cooperate together. So just for the fun of it I said, ‘who here thinks parties should cooperated together?’ Virtually every hand amongst 1,800 people in the chattering classes put their hand up. I said, ‘well, who thought the Lib Dem Tory coalition was a good thing?’ And a lot of the hands went down. So, well you’re the problem aren’t you? You’ve just told me you want people to work together but not those people.

 

00:16:10.17 Andy:

But not those people.

 

00:16:11.05 Nick:

And I think ever since then there has, as you say, been a period in which you just think, oh no, not another crisis. And the real question is what is linking them all? And my instinct is that that peace and prosperity promise that’s at the centre of politics, was torn up really by on the one hand the Iraq War and the sense that many people had, rightly or wrongly, that they’d been lied to.

 

00:16:40.00 Andy:

Yes.

 

00:16:40.10 Nick:

And the terrorism that may or may not have resulted from it but certainly came after it. That on the one hand and then banking crisis of 2008 squeezed people’s living standards. And if you add to that a loss of faith because of the expenses system, those things combined to create a sense that this isn’t working for us anymore any of this.

 

00:17:02.21 Andy:

The relationship changed basically.

 

00:17:05.16 Nick:

And therefore a desire for dramatic change, be it independence in Scotland, be it Brexit, be it big, controversial characters from Trump to Corbyn to Johnson.

 

00:17:16.16 Andy:

Yes, and then fuelled by changes in technology. Fuelled by the way that we consume our news and the way that we are able now to have an opinion that we can broadcast ourselves at the press of a button. Do you think that bit has been an important part of why politics is where it is now?

 

00:17:39.09 Nick:

Yeah, undoubtedly I think the channel for anger and the speed with which anger seeps into the body politics is extraordinary. I was always the guy who in the back of a cab, the old cliche, used to confront the driver who would say ‘they’re all the same, they’re all in it for themselves’. I’d always go, ‘well do you know what, mate, it’s my actual job and I know all these people and that isn’t true’. And we’d have a ding dong about it. What changed for the guy in the cab is that now thanks to social media he will have, she will have twenty “facts” to prove that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

 

00:18:20.18 Andy:

Yes.

 

00:18:21.01 Nick:

About his conspiracy theory and that happened and do you know… and I literally don’t have the hours in the day, let alone in the back of the cab, to go, ‘you know what, every one of those is nonsense, it is all nonsense’. And I don’t know about you, but I find myself in this increasingly awkward position with my own family, I’ve got kids in their twenties and my friends, being seen as an apologist for politicians. Because I quite frequently go, ‘you know I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, I don’t think that really happened’. And there’s a sort of great desire created by social media for that not to be true.

 

00:18:59.15 Andy:

Yes. Let’s have a judgement, and instant black and white judgement. No room, so little room for the grey anymore.

 

00:19:07.11 Nick:

Yeah, exactly.

 

00:19:09.01 Andy:

Which is what politics is.

 

00:19:10.15 Nick:

Which for leaders dealing with crises is fascinating, isn’t it? Because they’ve then got to make that calculation, dare we even try to deal with the falsehood? Is it even worth trying to put a spin on? Or is the thing to do is go and hide and hope it goes away?

 

00:19:24.15 Andy:

Yeah and also, should we chuck one out there ourselves? Which, of course, is the Trump playbook.

 

00:19:31.12 Nick:

Yes. You look this week, that is exactly what some people allege… You can tell I work for the BBC, can’t you? Some people allege Boris Johnson of. It just comes naturally after all these years. Some people suggest that that’s exactly what the Prime Minister did on the back foot against Kier Starmer. He suddenly throws out Jimmy Saville because he knows that the idea that Kier Starmer as Director of Public Prosecutions didn’t prosecute Jimmy Saville has got almost nothing in it at all but it’s a story that will fly. And if he’s lucky it becomes a massive distraction because you’re looking over there, the famous, now famous, Dead Cat Strategy, you’re not looking over here.

 

00:20:16.10 Andy:

Indeed. Let’s talk about you, Nick. And your personal attitude to crisis, away from the professional for a bit, and your experience of it, of course. I’d like to start right at the beginning, if I may. Your grandmother was a German-Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1933. Growing up was that family back story of, you know, the most appalling crisis, was it discussed? Was it part of your upbringing?

 

00:20:49.01 Nick:

Not in the early days, interestingly. So my grandparents, my maternal grandparents, fled the Nazis in 1933 and did something which will sound very unusual but wasn’t that unusual at the time, they actually ended up, it wasn’t the plan, but they ended up in Shang Hai in China where a lot of refugees, White Russians as they were known, refugees from Communist Russia and others, ended up. So there was a sort of glamour about them. They lived in the Far East when I first got to know them. And it was only as I, they moved to Europe, I visited their apartments, all these books about the Holocaust and I was interested. I asked those questions about it.

 

00:21:28.05 Nick:

Like lots of people who escaped the Holocaust they didn’t really dwell on it with other people. They certainly didn’t highlight the horrors, although we were a lucky family, most of the family got out. But you had a sense that it was absolutely the back drop to their lives. And very early on gave me this sense of how would you deal with a crisis in which, as happened with my grandparents, my granddad said to my grandma, ‘I think we out to work out what these Nazis were like’. So took her to a Nazi rally in Berlin in 1933. Which when you’re called Rosenberg is quite a thing to do. Looked at it and said, ‘that’s it, we’re out’.

 

00:22:12.20 Andy:

Literally off the back of that, yeah…

 

00:22:16.15 Nick:

…established, prosperous family and they started to pack up and go. Not that day but they made plans and they eventually got out and eventually got their own parents out, years later but they did get them out. And that sense that the basis of their lives was on confronting this huge crisis and just taking a calculated decision, this is long before people knew what the Holocaust was. It is, yes, persecution but long before Kristallnacht and what drove other people. Just a thing of, that’s the reality, we have to front it up, we have to make a decision, we have to live with it. And they never went back. I tried to take my mother back to Berlin, see what it was like. She said, ‘seen enough thank you, not going back’.

 

00:23:01.22 Andy:

So two things there. One is that your grandfather obviously had an incredible political antennae. Because that’s what it was in 1933, right? It’s politics, wasn’t it? I mean, it hadn’t sort of surfaced in the way that we all know now. It was politics, right?

 

00:23:17.04 Nick:

Well, extremism had surfaced, yes the Brown Shirts and all the rest of it. But the plan for the extermination of the people had clearly not surfaced. But just that feeling which was quite a thing for a German who had won medals in the First World War for his service. He was not some sort of, what would have been seen by the Nazis as a political extremist who would be targeted. As it happens he was a socialist but he just…

 

00:23:43.17 Andy:

And considered himself to be a proud German?

 

00:23:45.19 Nick:

Yeah, proud German, he took a look at this and though, we’re not as big as this, this is bigger than us. Our answer is get out.

 

00:23:54.13 Andy:

The second thing there, and perhaps we’ll get onto this in terms of your story as we talk about it, is he clearly also understood what some would say, I certainly hold to this, that the fundamental approach that one should take when facing crisis is to understand what you’ve got control of and what you don’t have control of.

 

00:24:16.09 Nick:

Yeah.

 

00:24:16.13 Andy:

And he clearly calculated we still have some control here. So let’s get out.

 

00:24:21.00 Nick:

I think that’s right. And we’ll come to this, Andy, but the phrase that I used with my kids again and again when I got cancer was, you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react to what happens to you.

 

00:24:35.09 Andy:

Precisely.

 

00:24:36.03 Nick:

And that was my… I don’t remember my grandparents saying that to me. But I think when I looked at how they dealt with their lives, that was the obvious truth. They didn’t think they were big enough or important enough to deal with the rise of Nazism. What they thought they could do is make a calculated decision about how to react to it.

 

00:24:59.08 Andy:

You were, perhaps as a result of that back story, I don’t know Nick, but you were a very politically interested young man. But instead of politics you chose journalism. And you’ve said, Nick, that your ambition was in a fairly significant way, the result of crisis, of tragedy in fact at the age of eighteen, you’ve talked before about the car crash in France that claimed the lives of two of your friends, James Nelson and Will Redhead. Your best pal at the time, I think, and son of the legendary broadcaster, Brian Redhead. In your book, Nick, Life in Downing Street, you explained just how incredibly lucky you were to survive that crash.

 

00:25:52.09 Andy:

If you can, it’s so long ago now, but it’s such an unbelievable trauma, how on earth did you cope at the time?

 

00:26:03.18 Nick:

It’s an interesting question, one you won’t be surprised to know I’ve asked myself, but don’t really, really have the answer to. I mean, just to explain the context. This is a group of three lads at the end of our A levels. We’re, in fact, going to visit my grandparents who, at the time, lived in Switzerland, as the first stop on a big tour. We have a head-on collision. The car explodes. My two friends are in the front of a Beetle and they’re both killed in the impact and I’m trapped in the back of the car with the car ablaze. So the first thing to say is I didn’t know how I got out the car and I still to this day don’t know how I got out the car.

 

00:26:39.06 Nick:

In fact I remember the moment I tried to smash the windows. It was a huge old car and I’m in the back and I couldn’t get out. And I remember giving up, I mean, I remember thinking, that’s it, that’s me, I can’t get out. And to this day I don’t know if I was thrown out by an explosion, I don’t think I was pulled out because I think, you know, the person who did that would have themselves been injured, it would have been known. But I genuinely don’t know. And then I was in intensive care in France and put on a ventilator. And it had a curious effect when the ventilators were talked about in this Covid crisis, all those memories flooded by. Which is it sort of formed a break between what happened and what then happened. If that makes any sense.

 

00:27:28.18 Nick:

It sort of meant that when I woke up I’m in the period of my life where I’m ill, I’ve got to get better. And when you’re incredibly determined without that reflection. But I think it was just a desire to get on and get back to the life before. And actually, quite a powerful sense not to over reflect. I mean, the only moment of anger I remember was when someone, very well-meaning, a friend who was very religious came and broke down in my hospital room. And I knew why they were sad but I said, you seem particularly upset. And then revealed that they were upset because they thought my friends were not Christian and might not go to heaven. And I really lost my temper, that’s when I really lost my temper. It’s like, that’s your problem, not mine, to deal with that.

 

00:28:28.03 Nick:

But I didn’t have that desire to… I mean, I turned down having counselling for example. It was quite early days for counselling then in the eighties. But I just wanted to get on.

 

00:28:38.16 Andy:

So how were you making those calculations, Nick? Because it’s that unbelievable strength of mind to have been able to process what happened. How were you able to just kind of get it in the right place in the way that you’ve described? How do you make a calculation at the age of eighteen, by the way, that you know what, it probably will not serve me well to spend my days sitting, thinking about this in great depth, in the way that I suspect a lot of people would have done?

 

00:29:12.18 Nick:

I suppose I felt, and maybe this is kind of using a kind of logical mind that when people did, and occasionally they would, ask those inevitable questions, well what if you got the later ferry and not that ferry? What if you’d not had dinner? You just in the end, it descends into absurdity. There was a bit of me that could, even though it was a horrible tragedy, go what, you mean if I’d not and I did as it happened, have chicken schnitzel in the Barbican in Brian Redhead’s flat, we might not have got that ferry on that road… I mean, do me a favour.

 

00:29:45.09 Andy:

‘What if’ being the most useless words in crisis.

 

00:29:48.09 Nick:

Yeah, what is the point of doing that? It’s not only a destructive thing but it’s also another level of absurd. I mean, clearly it was neither fated to happen nor was some other calculation going to mean it didn’t happen. It was, in my life, like a meteorite striking. And I didn’t feel that it would do the memories of Will and James, who you kindly named, any good at all if I was trying to work out why did they drive that way or do this or do that? Seemed to me I just got to get out of that hospital. You know, and I had a series of immediate challenges. My lungs took quite a battering. At one stage I thought I wasn’t going to be able to use one of my hands. I had to retrain to write with my left hand. My side was threatened because of the burns I got.

 

00:30:47.19 Nick:

There were a number of… some of them went very quickly, others were dealt with over a period of months. But for me it was like, right do that. I still, as I described my hand, I still just remember squeezing a ball endlessly and again, wobble your hand back. And as you can see, I have got both hands in use. And you’d be amused as an old print man, the way I learnt to use my fingers again was I used to have to pick up the little bits of print that you’d use in Fleet Street to lay a paper out. That’s what you did because they… or you’d pick up letters in order to print something, to get your hand working. And I suppose what I did was break it into tasks. What is today’s task? It’s to get those letters in order.

 

00:31:30.04 Andy:

One thing, one step at a time.

 

00:31:32.15 Nick:

Yeah.

 

00:31:33.20 Andy:

Can I ask, Nick, how often do you think about it now?

 

00:31:40.02 Nick:

Probably more often since my boys are the similar age. So my boys are now in their twenties. But I found, I’ll be honest with you, you know, when they passed their driving test, one of them has, one of them hasn’t, there’s a bit of me saying, I don’t want them to drive because of what happened. And yet, I desperately wanted them to go on a holiday and to enjoy themselves and have the freedom that a car can have. So some of those moments in my life which I remember, as you said, particularly with Will, who’d been my best friend since the age of eight, and my son is now named after, my oldest son is called Will. You relive them more and you do then think, Will would have enjoyed this.

 

00:32:22.19 Andy:

Yeah.

 

00:32:23.16 Nick:

Yeah. So it’s always there. And I think, like a lot of us, you get more sentimental the older you get.

 

00:32:28.23 Andy:

I think that’s certainly true.

 

00:32:30.10 Nick:

I tell you a curious thing which might interest people who I know you talk to sometimes who are facing a personal crisis, it can come from nowhere. I watched a movie a little while back, which is not even about a car crash, and I felt myself well up during this film. I now realise what the trigger was, by the way. It was a film called Captain Phillips which is a programme which is about the bloke who takes on Somali pirates. There’s a moment he’s trapped in a diving bell. And I realise that in its own way it was evoking memories of me being trapped in the car. And I had to, you know we were watching with the kids, and I thought I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to get out, I mustn’t break down in front of them. And I kind of sobbed my heart out in a way I properly hadn’t for twenty years.

 

00:33:14.22 Andy:

So you didn’t find yourself using counselling in those early days, have you since, can I ask?

 

00:33:22.15 Nick:

I have started a little bit of counselling actually. And what was interesting was how quickly, it’s so bleeding obvious isn’t it, that experience came up. And the guy is saw said, ‘Have you really processed this ever? Do you think maybe you’ve shut it away and not dealt with it?’ So maybe our conversation will mean that I’ll go back and continue that conversation with him because I haven’t, maybe I should.

 

00:33:54.08 Andy:

I mean, Nick, I mean, what can you say? What… as you say, a meteorite in your life. But you turned it though, into a, you know, with it being nothing other than entirely tragic, but you did find a sort of positive from it. Must be a great comfort, I don’t know if comfort is the right word really. Because you did take that and say to yourself, you write about this in your book, do you know what, I’m going to get the most out of life. I owe it to my two friends and I owe it to what happened really to now get the absolute maximum out of my life. And that manifested itself in a pretty fierce and very successful professional life, right?

 

00:34:44.18 Nick:

Yes.

 

00:34:45.02 Andy:

Is that how you see it?

 

00:34:47.22 Nick:

It wasn’t as direct by the way as thinking, my mate’s dad was a presenter of the Today Programme, I’m going to be the presenter of the Today Programme.

 

00:35:00.01 Andy:

No, because you were already clear you wanted to be a journalist before the accident.

 

00:35:03.13 Nick:

Before the accident, I knew Brian Redhead quite well, well, very well because we’d been on holidays together and his house was on my walk home. I’d often, even at the age of eight, pop in for a cup of tea. But there was a sort of, I think you’re absolutely right, that presented by those moments at which life stops and there was a phone call I remember taking in hospital in which the university I was supposed to said don’t come. Not in a nasty way, to be helpful, said stop running, get yourself better, come in a year. And suddenly there was this great hole. And because I was still having medical care I couldn’t go anywhere, I couldn’t travel, actually, I was at home and going to the hospital quite frequently. But I had to do something.

 

00:35:48.15 Nick:

Now as it happened I got a job doing radio and got the love of it really. And being, I guess, being busy was my… if you were my psychologist you’d probably say being busy was my salve.

 

00:36:05.15 Andy:

Which by the way is not running away necessarily, is it? I mean, do you… there’s a stoicism at its core that deal with what you can deal with, progress in the way that you can progress and try not to live in the past. It’s not that you were running away, what you’re actually doing is grabbing hold and taking control of your life. Would you agree with that?

 

00:36:30.00 Nick:

I do think that. I think as I get older you can see that sometimes that busyness can be a substitute for contentment. There’s just a desire to get the next thing, the next achievement, what is the next goal? And as I vaguely approach sixty you start to say well hold on, is that the best? Is that the right measure of life? But I certainly think that for me it gave me an attitude from that moment on, of, as I said, control what you can and stop angsting about what you can’t. And don’t set a list of 28 things to control but do the one in front of you, get that done.

 

00:37:18.00 Andy:

You touched on it a moment ago Nick, starting in radio, Manchester Piccadilly, and then into television, in the sort of background as an editor, Panorama, Newsround, there’s a programme in my view that should be back on television. Your rise and then eventually of course on screen, your rise through the ranks was pretty stunning. Reading your CV you were a young man in a hell of a hurry. We’ve touched on perhaps some of the motivations for why that was but you also clearly just fell in love with news, is that right?

 

00:37:54.04 Nick:

Yeah, it’s absolutely right. And I tell you what I became addicted to, which I’m not sure everybody listening to this podcast will quite approve of, but it is the sense that what you do shifts things, that it moves the dial. One of the first programmes I worked on, I was a producer for ten years before I was on screen, was a political interview programme a Sunday lunchtime. We had Nigel Lawson, the chancellor at the time, was in the middle of a behind the scenes war with Margaret Thatcher about economic policy. And I prepped the interview for Jonathan Dimbleby to do. And I knew what was going on or I had a sense of it. And I said keep asking because in the end he’s intellectually honest or arrogant enough, take your pick, he’ll reveal it. And he did. And I remember the next day and I’m still slightly embarrassed recalling this, but the pound fell two pfennigs and I thought, I did that. I did that, I did.

 

00:38:52.23 Nick:

And of course, there’s a bit of me hearing this back thinking my god how irresponsible. Why do you want the pound to go down? But the sense that you can have at the heart of journalism that it matters.

 

00:39:04.09 Andy:

That influence.

 

00:39:05.10 Nick:

Yeah, it is a bit addictive.

 

00:39:08.22 Andy:

Yes, addictive and enormously professionally rewarding as well though, right?

 

00:39:15.07 Nick:

Yeah absolutely because it doesn’t come easily. In other words, to do that I had to get really deep into government economic policy. I called lots of people, I spoke to them until I thought, I’ve got this now, I know what this argument is about. Now for people with short memories who are young, they may not remember that then went on to the crisis that I think was the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher, the Chancellor resigned over economic policy. So it actually was intellectually kind of rewarding as well. Doing some of these stories, you asked about the Boris Johnson crisis at the beginning of this conversation, I still remember the last time the cops went into Number 10 which was cash for honours. Tony Blair was Prime Minister. And I had a source who was telling us every day what was going on and I had people in the police who, you’d be shocked and surprised to learn, were willing to confirm what was going on.

 

00:40:10.23 Nick:

And I worked with Robert Best who then was a colleague at the BBC, who had a business contact and every day we were moving things. But the moment you thought bloody hell we’re onto something here, the Metropolitan Police injuncted my story. So I did, I think, the shortest lead news story on the 10 o’clock news ever, because Fiona Bruce had been warned so much about the legal sensitivities that after I did my opening answer of, I think, nineteen seconds she panicked and cut me off. So all I said is, ‘we’ve been injuncted in the High Court but we’re not allowed to tell you why.’ And that was sort of it.

 

00:40:43.23 Andy:

So there’s a little example. There are others that are professional crises but are more directed at you as well. They go to the same question but you’ve come in for plenty of scrutiny in your job, perhaps now actually, than ever before because of what we discussed earlier about the judgements that are being made in public life, including for journalists. Plenty of stress, you know, accused of Tory and Labour bias which rather undermines the idea that you’re biased. You’ve been called a pillock by John Prescott, though frankly, who hasn’t? Alex Salmond, that other paragon of virtue, said that you should be ashamed of your reporting. There are some examples, I’m sure there are better ones than that but when the criticism is directed at you did any of those feel like a crisis for you? Did they feel like a professional, a really significant and as you said earlier, existential, professional problem for you?

 

00:41:53.20 Nick:

You know what, only one. And because I got through that one that I could cope with all the others. So when I first became a reporter, I can tell you the story if you like? I’d become a reporter and it’s just before Labour get into power. When Tony Blair is in what now looks the hilarious period where he thought anything that went wrong could stop him beating John Major as against what we know which is this huge landslide. And I reported on something Clare Short said which was attacking people who used to do your sort of job as a spin doctor, as the men in the dark.

 

00:42:32.06 Nick:

And I was put on the Today Programme in a tearing rush after Peter Mandelson had cobbled a statement together saying that Clare Short and Tony Blair were actually agreed about everything. Which of course they didn’t. And I was asked by Sue MacGregor, the old presenter of the Today Programme, what did I think? And bear in mind I was nobody, I’d just started on the road, it just so happened I was the person available. She said, ‘what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well Sue, it’s a bit like you go round for dinner at a house with a couple you know who tend to argue and they’ve stayed together for the sake of the kids and one course later they’re throwing crockery at each other. And that’s what’s basically going on.’ I said. ‘They’re staying together for the kids but they can’t stop warring.’

 

00:43:17.12 Andy:

Yeah.

 

00:43:18.13 Nick:

Peter Mandelson went berserk. He just spent, I now realise, about fifteen hours cobbling this statement together and I’d just blown it apart live on the Today Programme.

 

00:43:29.03 Andy:

In a way the people would instantly understand.

 

00:43:31.20 Nick:

And he did actively try to have me sacked. He knew the Director General, he called up, he briefed political journalists that I was a well-known Tory student activist or biased against them. It was the only time I’ve lost sleep because of work, I thought, I’m out. And the thing that is empowering then is when you wake up the next day and think, I’m not out, this hasn’t worked. The Director General is not listening. The political journalists were ringing me up to say we think this is a disgrace what he’s saying. Alastair Campbell raised something some months later and Elinor Goodman, formally of Channel 4 News, stood up and said to Alastair Campbell, ‘This briefing stops until you apologise to Nick Robinson.’

 

00:44:17.19 Nick:

And there are those moments where you think you stand firm, people are backing you, that is crucial I think in a crisis. If you’re getting a sense from people you trust that they believe you and you think you can withstand this, that gives you the strength. And then all the other crises where, you know, in Scotland I had to have a bodyguard because I was told I was under threat from pro-independence extremists who did… 2,000 people booed me at the eve of a referendum poll event held by the SNP.

 

00:44:50.13 Andy:

Any of that get through? I take the point that you’re able to deal with it but is it getting through?

 

00:44:56.16 Nick:

Of course it gets through, yeah, of course it gets through. I mean, the other day the Daily Mail were attacking me every day for the fact that I was anti Boris Johnson. They cooked up some nonsense story that I was anti him because we’d been rivals at university. But I tell you what happened there, in the therapy I wrote a long Twitter thread in response to the Mail. And I sent it to my bosses and said ‘I know you’re going to tell me not to do this and I probably won’t do it but it’s therapy’. And I thought, these are reasonable, this is a reasonable defence but it’s also a stupid thing to do because it’s going to war and I don’t want to go to war. When they did it again and I did something that everybody told me I shouldn’t do and I can’t reveal much detail for obvious reasons, but I just rang the editor. I just said, ‘shall we stop pissing about?’

 

00:45:49.01 Andy:

Yeah, I want to have a conversation.

 

00:45:50.09 Nick:

‘I want to have a conversation, why do you think what you think and I’ll tell you what I think and I may not convince you but we don’t really know each other, let’s just talk about it’. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal what was said beyond the fact that it was a worthwhile conversation. And sense that other people, ‘oh no, don’t do that…’ ‘…you might say the wrong thing.’ I’m delighted at it.

 

00:46:12.02 Andy:

Well isn’t that interesting, Nick? You know, with you in the job that you do, I assume Ted Verity sitting doing the job that he does, correct me if I’m wrong. The fact that the two of you, and I’m not going to ask what the results of it was or the details of the conversation but the mere fact that you’re able to have a reasonable conversation and without wishing to sound like my father, isn’t that the problem that we have right now? Is where’s the reasonable conversation? Whether it’s between a Today Programme presenter and the editor of the Daily Mail or whoever, where’s the room for reasonableness? Did you feel the same way?

 

00:46:50.15 Nick:

I did, I really did because I look back at my Twitter thread that I drafted. Although, it’s perfectly reasonable all it is doing is lighting a fuse on another explosion. All that’s doing. He’s going to feel got at, I’m going to feel got at by what he feels got at and off we go. Nobody can back down and I just thought… I just said to him, ‘look I’m not ringing about a particular story, I’ll deal with your reporters on that, that’s what they’re paid for, I just want a chat.’ And I’ve done it with other people in the past. And I just think just saying, okay… And I had to walk round the room a bit so I wouldn’t be cross in advance. But I did say ‘I just want to listen, there’s a theme here, talk me through, what are you thinking?’ Which, as I say, he did and then I got a different version of events and I thought we both, I hope he’s not annoyed that I reveal that the conversation was had, I don’t think he should be because that’s why you move on, you learn.

 

00:47:51.03 Andy:

That’s right, exactly. And what the other lesson there is of course is that Twitter can never be the platform for reasonableness.

 

00:47:59.06 Nick:

I tell you the lesson I think I have learned; I don’t know if you think this is relevant to people dealing with a crisis is it almost always is worth having a conversation. I, in the Scottish referendum, when I got over the fact that 4,000 people were marching on the BBC calling for me to be fired and the First Minister of Scotland was in favour of me being fired, I thought what actually is this about? Distance yourself. I said, this is the cause of people’s lives and they think, wrongly in my view, they think I’m screwing it up. Of course they’re annoyed, of course they are, of course it matters hugely to them and much more than to me coming up from London because it’s an interesting story. Of course they are, they’ll do anything to try and get what they’re interested in.

 

00:48:49.18 Nick:

And what I did on that occasion was I was waiting for Alex Salmond to arrive in a helicopter for some pre-referendum event and he was late. And I said to my producer I’m going in there. And he said ‘are you completely crazy?’ because it was a big group of his most fervent supporters. I said, ‘look, it’ll be fine, keep an eye on me, I’ll put an arm up if I’m in trouble.’ This was before I had the bodyguard. And I just went in and there was definitely a bit of ‘ooooh’. I said, ‘Look, I’ve just been told he’s an hour delayed. So why don’t we do this? You’re annoyed with me, I’ve got it, but I have not heard from you why. Why don’t we… I’ve got half an hour. Have you got half an hour because I’m not going anywhere? Let’s just talk about that. You tell me, but do me a favour, after you’ve told me let me talk. ’

 

00:49:39.10 Nick:

And it was a fascinating experience. Only one person remained unconvinced. And she said it was all about blood and soil and I pointed out to her that those were the exact words that had contributed to my grandparents leaving Nazi Germany so I wasn’t going to take a lecture in my own country from someone talking about blood and soil.

 

00:49:58.20 Nick:

But otherwise it worked. And another one I did, if you’re interested, same thing happened, I arrived in Glasgow a year after the referendum and the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport said, ‘I’m surprised you can show your face round here.’ So I said, ‘why do you say that?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t matter.’ So I said, ‘no, no come on, we’ve got how long to get into town? Twenty minutes? Go on tell me.’ And I tell you what was lovely, we had a really good conversation, at the end I got out at George Square, very significant, that’s where all the big pro-independence marches were, that’s why I was going back to do a piece there. I got out and said, ‘How much?’ He said, ‘No fare’. He said, ‘You took the time to explain, people never explain, no fare. No way, I’ll take you anywhere you want in Glasgow, I won’t charge you.’

 

00:50:41.11 Andy:

Nick, let’s go forward to February 2015 if I may. You’re preparing for a looming general election, a very important and unpredictable general election as it was. You’re at the top of your game after suffering for a while with a persistent cough, you I think finally undergo some tests and you’re told that in fact you have a tumour in your lung. There’s a line, Nick, in your second book, Election Notebook, which for those listening who haven’t read it I really would urge you to because although it is the story of an election that feels like it’s in a dim and distant past it’s full of, I think, really interesting, relevant lessons of how politics works. But in the book, Nick, you describe receiving that news, your diagnosis, alone and then having to tell Pippa, your wife.

 

00:51:40.08 Andy:

And you say this, ‘I do what I do every day of my working life, summarise a stream of complex information on a subject I know very little about as simply as I can.’ That’s you absolutely drawing on your professional crisis muscles, your crisis strength and abilities to deal with the most personal, most difficult of moments. Have I got that right? Is that where you went in your mind?

 

00:52:09.00 Nick:

Yeah, I just processed it as a story. Even though I’d been told, right you’ve got cancer, it’s a particular type of tumour. And I was just like, hold on retain… first of all the funny thing about journalism as you’ll know only too well, is quite often people tell you things and you haven’t got your pen out at the time or your phone to make a note. So you’re trying to memorise the key facts and then you’re trying to process those key facts into a narrative.  And then you’re often trying to then after the narrative say well what are the action points? You know, what do I do next?

 

00:52:39.12 Nick:

And I absolutely did that. Thought, hold on, okay, okay, it’s cancer, it’s that sort of cancer. This is how long he says I need for treatment. This is what has to be done. And I processed that.

 

00:52:51.09 Andy:

You went into campaign mode is what you did.

 

00:52:53.12 Nick:

I did, yeah, yeah. I stumbled across the day a memo I wrote to my bosses at the BBC, I mean people I knew pretty well, I don’t mean the Director General. And I’m embarrassed reading back because it is literally a campaign document. It tells them I’ll be back after three weeks; I’ve discussed this. Surgery will take this time; recovery will take that time.

 

00:53:16.05 Andy:

Should we get a call from the media, these are the key messages.

 

00:53:20.01 Nick:

Literally.

 

00:53:21.06 Andy:

The line to take.

 

00:53:21.13 Nick:

Because I actually did have to plan the publicity because I was [unclear] going into an election. I took the view I can’t just disappear off air without explanation and if I do people will just fill that space with horrible speculation. So we actually took rather a difficult decision as a family and it looked odd looking back but I think it was the right decision, to actually put out detailed medical description of what I’d got. Because I thought as soon as they hear cancer people are straight into well are you going to die? And how long have you got? So I just thought it was easier to say, it is this sort of tumour, that’s what it is, the doctors say I’ll be back to work. You know, as a way of just saying right that’s it, you don’t get anything more, we’re not talking any more. Everything you could possibly want to know, there.

 

00:54:05.16 Andy:

So that’s the sort of…

 

00:54:06.16 Nick:

…Andy, we’re on a train to see my mother to tell her the news, sorry on the way back from seeing my mother and it’s suddenly a breaking news story on the news channel that I’ve got cancer, was the weirdest thing.

 

00:54:24.12 Andy:

When you look back at it now, Nick, those conversations, were they the worst element of it in a way? Having to have that conversation with Pippa? Having to have a conversation with your mum? I think you say in the book, for the second time she’s wondering whether or not her son is going to die before she does. The conversation with the children, with your three children, the worst aspect for you?

 

00:54:48.19 Nick:

Yes undoubtedly, yeah. Because it’s all very well you processing it but you want to protect them by you don’t want to lie to them. You want to put it into perspective without playing it down. And you can’t look after them. The parents’ instinct is to care for them, the husband’s instinct is to care for the person you love. But you can’t actually in the end do all that for them. No, I found that very difficult.

 

00:55:17.22 Andy:

Well in the book it’s very moving the way you describe that set of decisions that you had to make. That although, it’s a campaign, it’s a plan, but what sits underneath it couldn’t be more emotional could it? And you made the clear decision, clearly together with Pippa, that we’re not going to do anything than be completely straight about what it is and what is happening to me and then to the family. And that’s how we’re going to manage this thing, that’s how we’re going to get through it.

 

00:55:52.14 Nick:

I have to say, I think, that is almost always the better thing to do.

 

00:55:57.07 Andy:

Yes.

 

00:55:57.09 Nick:

This is the extent of the problem, reassuring you that it’s not as bad as that. I guess the challenge to me and it became when I had surgery to deal with, a tumour, and as a side effect of the surgery I lost my voice. And at one stage thought I might lose it.

 

00:56:14.15 Andy:

Let’s explain first, if you don’t mind, for people listening to this. The tumour although cancerous, thankfully, if there is the right kind of tumour, it was the right kind of tumour if you like.

 

00:56:25.09 Nick:

Yeah.

 

00:56:26.02 Andy:

And they were able to remove it entirely and pretty successfully. But, as you say, during that operation your vocal chords were damaged.

 

00:56:37.05 Nick:

That’s right. The nerve to my vocal chords was hit. So when I woke up my voice was barely audible as a whisper. People literally had to lean in, put their ear a few inches from me to hear what I was saying. And it was just not known whether that was a temporary thing, a nerve had been stunned or whether it had been cut. Because obviously the surgeon neither meant to do it nor knew it had happened, nor could therefore really give you a totally accurate sense of what would happen next. And I suppose for the first time that meant I thought my career might be over. Or that career might be over. And I went into secrecy mode then. I had this terror that people knew and suddenly I’d be driven out of town, which looking back is ridiculous.

 

00:57:27.00 Andy:

Well what was that all about do you think?

 

00:57:27.21 Nick:

Lord knows. You know, we told a few immediate friends and we hid. And it’s actually only when my deputy, James Landor rang me and I just instinctively picked up the phone and ‘hello’ you know, tiny, almost inaudible voice, I then put the phone down, texted him and went, James, you can’t tell anybody I’ve not got a voice and so on.

 

00:57:49.03 Andy:

That’s interesting, Nick, right, because you’re… to say you’re established at this point is an understatement. You’re a national institution at this stage and yet you are thinking in your head, you’re thinking this could end my… I could get the elbow here because of this.

 

00:58:08.10 Nick:

Yeah. Well, I work for a big public sector organisation. I wasn’t going to get sacked but I could easily have been, or in my head at the time I could have easily have been…

 

00:58:17.15 Andy:

Gently, gently eased to the margins, yeah.

 

00:58:20.07 Nick:

Well it kind of a bit tricky if you can’t be heard and you’re a broadcaster. Yeah, no that was a proper… and it went therefore from this crisis I could manage, of cancer, to a crisis I didn’t know how to manage which is I haven’t got a voice. But again my way of then dealing with it was then somebody came and said, this is what you do, there’s surgery, there’s therapy. And that then became the obsession of my day to day life. I had therapy almost daily. But you know what, I look back with amusement, it probably looked like I was having an affair because I ended up going to hotel rooms to meet my voice therapist.

 

00:59:02.17 Andy:

Yes, in a room over Kings Cross Station, am I right?

 

00:59:05.06 Nick:

Yeah, taking my glasses off because I didn’t want to be recognised. And it’s a weird thing. And in fact what was happening was I was upstairs in this particular room that you can hire going, ‘eeee, aaaah,’ you know and doing all these sounds in order for my vocal chords to work again.

 

00:59:21.21 Andy:

So does that talk to another element of crisis management, if you like? The idea that you’re own imagination actually can absolutely be your undoing. The idea that there’s something else that’s either happening or that could happen, that you’re just allowing to swamp and overtake your campaign plan? Is that essentially what happened to you? Is that you just…

 

00:59:46.13 Nick:

Yeah, I think that, exactly, you think you’ve got it under control, something comes along that you hadn’t planned for, that you don’t know how to plan your way out of and it can swamp you. Now my way of dealing with it was then to listen hard to people and they’d go, ’no, no there are things you can do and to put your energy into doing those things’ but if you can’t clear your mind enough to do that… and you do need help with that. In my case the voice therapist said, ‘I don’t know what the final result will be but you’re not going to be like this, we’re going to get you there.’ And she had, and I basically had total belief in her, in Julia, who was my voice therapist.

 

01:00:31.11 Andy:

Nick, I think I’m right in saying that the doctor at the very early stages, this is before the precise diagnosis, but the very early stages, the doctor thought possibly that, obviously as it was lung related, that it could have been related to the accident when you were eighteen. So there was presumably and actual bridge between those two events. But was there a bridge between those two events in your mind?

 

01:00:54.05 Nick:

You mean did I think there was that connection?

 

01:00:58.19 Andy:

Well, there’s the whether there was an actual connection in terms of your physical health but in your mind did you connect the two things? Here you are again dealing with something, your word, properly existential.

 

01:01:15.16 Nick:

I think what I thought, Andy, is I’ve dealt with a crisis before I can deal with this.

 

01:01:21.13 Andy:

I can deal with it. You turned it to positive.

 

01:01:24.01 Nick:

And having that sense of it can’t possibly be as bad as that, nothing could ever be as bad as that. So break it down, work out what to do, have a confidence there is a place you can get to that will sort that out. I probably, if I had a mistake, looking back, was that I thought getting over it was getting back to work. You know the great David Dimbleby said to me, ‘Why don’t you just take six months off and get better?’ And I became obsessed with getting back on air. To the point that frankly I went on air before I had a voice that was really fit to broadcast with.

 

01:02:03.14 Nick:

Now you lot were very, people in your world were very generous to me, I did an interview with the Prime Minister David Cameron about election which he was probably struggling to hear me, let alone the audience. And looking back I didn’t need to prove myself really in that way but I felt I did.

 

01:02:21.10 Andy:

Why? Do you think.

 

01:02:26.17 Nick:

I suppose this goes back to what we were saying before about how I treated the accident. It was the symbol of being better was working. And so that was too narrow a sense of what having recovered was. You know, you could have defined it in a much wider way, time with family. But it became, I’m only better if I’ve gone to work which was a mistake actually.

 

01:02:56.11 Andy:

There’s another, I think, wonderful line in your book on this at this point in the story, Nick, where you say, ‘when all this is a distant memory one thing above all others will stay int he mind, the relief on the faces of the children when we tell them the good news.’

 

01:03:13.19 Nick:

Yeah.

 

01:03:14.06 Andy:

This is when you are told actually, it’s gone.

 

01:03:19.19 Nick:

It is amazing, it’s an amazing moment. And you’ve been through a crisis in your life and when you can say to the family, ‘Look we came through it, we got through this. I’ve got through it; you’ve got through it.’ That is something that I hope strengthens them. And that phrase I used a bit ago, I hope they’ll think of when they think of me when I’m long gone, which is that you can’t control what happened but you can control how you react to what happens.

 

01:03:49.09 Andy:

Yeah.

 

01:03:50.07 Nick:

It’s, for me that is, that applies to the trivial, you know, the train doesn’t come, the car breaks down, it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s like, no, no, no, hold on. Stop asking yourself why this has happened, what do I now do in this situation? The curious thing about it is that can be a pleasure, there can be a real sense of. I remember promising to take my youngest boy to go to the Euros when they were being played in France, with his mate. And I hadn’t looked at my phone on the way to the airport. When we got there no flights to France, I’d missed all the warnings. And I just do remember saying to them, ‘Right boys, okay, let’s do this. You get the coffees, I’m sitting here with a train timetable, you do a playing time zone, we’ve got half an hour to come up with a way to get Lyon.’ It’s fun.

 

01:04:42.06 Andy:

Exactly. And you cracked it, I assume?

 

01:04:44.15 Nick:

Yeah, we got there.

 

01:04:45.20 Andy:

I was going to ask you when I was preparing for this conversation, I was going to ask you for the Nick Robinson formula for handling personal crisis but I found it again, referencing your book, never have there been so many plugs for one book in one podcast. Shameless and I don’t care because I think this is a cracking line and I think it is, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, the Nick Robinson formula for crisis management. And it’s simply this: the relaxing distraction and laughter of good friends, a few beers and having the piss taken out of you.

 

01:05:23.17 Nick:

How very true. I mean the best moment when I lost my voice, at one point I actually had no voice at all after the operation. One of my friends made a series of signs that I could hold up. So like, typed out signs. So I sat there kind of holding up things saying beer please, please run bath, you know. And then we discovered that on the iPad you could create a kind of Stephen Hawking type voice. So me and my boys actually tried doing Manchester United chants from the Stratford end done in a kind of Stephen Hawking voice. You can’t feel sorry for yourself after you’ve done that.

 

01:06:03.06 Andy:

No, exactly, exactly. The, I think, massively undervalued power of a sense of humour in crisis is absolutely critical to keep in mind. Nick, that’s just fantastic, thank you so much for your time. I think that’s been a really valuable conversation, I hope it’s been a really valuable conversation for anyone whose dealing with problems from whatever angle. I mean, you’ve faced down so much during the course of your life and I think that, as I say, there’s a tremendous value to be drawn from that and thank you for being so generous and for being so open in discussing them with me.

 

01:06:49.13 Andy:

Before you go, though, I want to ask you for your crisis cures, which we do at the end of every episode: three things that you specifically rely on in the more difficult days. The only rule is that it can’t be another person, who I am sure that you would mention Pippa if you were allowed. So what would you start with?

 

01:07:11.17 Nick:

Crisis cures: baths, right, hot bath, solves everything, gets you relaxed is one thing. Fresh air, the other. It’s a cliche, walk round the park it’ll all seem clearer.

 

01:07:28.24 Andy:

And you’re a big walker?

 

01:07:31.06 Nick:

Yeah, just clear the head, put the phone away, clear the head. Go and try and think straight. And other thing, if this just doesn’t sound too pi, if you’re in a crisis that involves another person, you’ve just got to work out what’s going on in their head. Doesn’t matter if that person hates you or is targeting you or is making your life hell. Just try to work out what is…

 

01:08:00.16 Andy:

See it from the other side do you mean?

 

01:08:02.12 Nick:

Yeah, yeah. Not because you think they’re right. Just to kind of work it out rationally, what’s going on.

 

01:08:09.22 Andy:

Very good, Nick Robinson, thanks so much for your time, really appreciate it.

 

01:08:13.22 Nick:

Good to talk Andy, thanks.

 

01:08:15.22 Music

 

01:08:38.05 End of transcription