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Could have been an excellent book, if it knew what it was about!
on 13 April 2014
What is "Live from Downing Street"? Is it a history of British political broadcasting, an examination of the evolving role of the Prime Minister through the creation of mass media, a consideration of the relationship between Parliament and the media, a look at the growing rift between the BBC and Government, a political thesis, or Nick Robinson's memoir?
The problem is, it's all of these, and yet none. Sadly, the book proves the old adage about a jack-of-all-trades being master of none. The narrative makes several abrupt shifts, so that at the end you reading almost an entirely different book to when you started. For the most part, all of the individual sections in themselves are excellent. They just don't fit well together.
I was riveted by the historical discussion of the relationship between Parliament and the media - how the BBC was founded and almost immediately found itself clashing with the Government of the day; how first radio and then television found their way into the Houses of Parliament; how Prime Ministers adapted to the role of being in front of the camera, and used it to their advantage. Parliament itself seems to fade out of the story soon after the TV cameras arrive, and the Prime Minister becomes ever more central to the tale.
But, once Robinson becomes a protagonist in the story, it shifts away from this fascinating overview, and an anecdotal format begins to creep in. His personal views and opinions make their way into what was previously more of a neutral treatment of the political figures in question. How each Prime Minister deals with the press becomes "how each Prime Minister deals with Nick Robinson". Although Robinson, in his preface, specifically says "it is not a memoir", it starts to feel an awful lot like one, and it began to lose me at that point.
It almost seems like Robinson changed his mind about what the book was about part way through. As it steps away from history into almost real-time developments, the timeline gets stretched out, and we spend many more pages dealing with individual events, rather than looking at the whole context. Perhaps that is merely a consequence of lacking that historical viewpoint, but it feels unbalanced and overemphasised.
The final chapter, which I understand is new to the paperback edition (and, therefore, its Kindle equivalent), is a defence of the BBC and its impartiality, in the wake of the various scandals that have engulfed it in the last two years. Whilst Robinson's argument is well-written, wholehearted, and - in my view - convincing, it has almost no relevance to the history that goes before, and seems entirely out of place. It could perhaps have been better suited to another work.
In conclusion, it is a good read, with many fascinating things to take away from it, just something of a failure in execution. If you excuse the sudden shifts in tone and the gradual dilution of the original concept, there is much to learn in this book.