Profile Editor William Milne speaks to veteran political journalist Michael Crick about his love for journalism, why it is vital within a healthy society, and the importance of impartiality.
When I spoke with legendary political journalist Michael Crick a few weeks ago, he displayed great warmth and kindness towards me; a strong concern for the state of journalism; and a genuine enthusiasm for the joys of his job.
It has been suggested that the five scariest words in British politics are ‘Michael Crick is in reception’, a reference to his style of journalism in which, as a correspondent for both the BBC and Channel 4, he doorsteps politicians, asking them tough questions, and exposing their weaknesses. Crick laughs when I mention this to him, humbly suggesting that it “gives me a status way beyond what I deserve”. He adds, “most of the time, I’m not very frightening”.
Crick sells himself short, since the thorough questioning that has marked his career has struck fear into the minds of politician upon politician. No public figure tainted by a whiff of dodginess would ever want to run into Michael Crick. Unfortunately for them, across his forty years at the heart of British broadcast journalism, Crick has been unavoidable. His interactions with politicians can be comedic, from boxing John Prescott to being hit with a flyer by UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom, but there is always a seriousness underpinning it, because these are the people running the country, and they must not be able to, quite literally, run away from questioning. And if they do run away, that only damages their reputation – because they cannot stand up to the scrutiny which Crick is so keen to apply.
In my conversation with Crick, of course, he was not “very frightening” at all, but incredibly kind, patient and encouraging. He spoke warmly of Durham, especially the Miner’s Gala, and encouraged me in my pursuit of a career in journalism, telling me to “persist… you can still have a lot of fun and get around a lot and meet lots of people and go places”. He advises any aspiring journalists to ask, and to be pushy without hesitation.
Crick’s love of journalism is twofold. It is both “an immensely enjoyable thing to do, and it’s a socially useful and responsible thing to do, that, essentially, good journalism is holding people in power to account for their actions.” It is enjoyable because, for Crick, it is dynamic and is an adventure. He urges aspiring journalists to “go out and explore, it’s amazing what you will find if you go out and go to places and look and talk”.
But it is also “socially useful” since “a lot of it has to do with keeping people on their toes” and thus ensuring that politicians are never able to rush away from the limelight, without being properly scrutinized. Crick has certainly lived up to such a standard. “I have a reputation I suppose of being a journalist who likes challenging politicians, asking them tough questions, delving into their pasts and finding naughty things that they have done in the past”.
For Crick, scrutiny has never been more important, and it is up to journalists to maintain it to a high standard. He is incredibly concerned about the caliber of politicians these days which “has gone down a lot in the last few decades”. “We need a lot more scrutiny on the selection process, which is where my little project comes in. And I think that we need to try and do all we can to root out the crooks and wrong’ns and the people frankly who just aren’t up to the job at an early stage.” This project he speaks of is called ‘Tomorrow’s MPs’, and can be found on X. The project shines a light on all the candidates or potential candidates in parliamentary constituencies. Such scrutiny is important because “the problems the world faces right now in my view are bigger than they’ve ever been. You know, the human race could be annihilated for one of any number of reasons right now… and that’s not been the case in the past.”
Crick comes across as incredibly confident, and his job is indeed very social, asking all the big questions to all the big people without hesitation. But, to my surprise, Crick reveals that “I’m naturally a shy person actually, and I find it difficult to talk to people and particularly people I don’t know very well to start with’. Crick gets past his shyness by dropping “Michael Crick the ordinary person” and adopting the mask of Michael Crick the journalist when he does his job.
Active politically in his younger years, Crick joined the Labour Party aged 15, wanting to go into politics as a career, with journalism only initially seen as a temporary job. Eventually, he was so deep into the world of journalism that he has remained one ever since, reaching the pinnacle, becoming one of Britain’s most well-respected reporters.
In light of his political beginnings, he was clearly very opinionated. On the recommendation of one of his bosses, he jokingly tells me how he had to undergo “an opinionectomy. It was very painful.” This was to ensure impartiality. “For about 35 years, from the mid-80s right up until the time I left Channel 4 News in 2019, there were a lot of things which I didn’t have an opinion on because I didn’t have to have an opinion on [it]… and now I’m free again… I have now been redeveloping my political views.” Crick now makes the most of being freelance and able to express opinions, through his aforementioned Tomorrow’s MPs project, as well as working for Mail Plus, and contributing to various TV news shows.
Impartiality is therefore a major issue for Crick, who believes that “broadcast impartiality” is important “particularly at a time when our political discourse is more and more polarised and fraught and frankly unpleasant at times”. This was certainly his opinion during a viral GB News appearance a few days prior to the interview, in which he strongly criticised perceived right-wing bias at GB News, before being kicked out of the studio during the break. GB News’ actions were met with widespread outrage. In our interview, Michael repeated this view on the channel, suggesting that “frankly it’s taking the piss out of the broadcasting rules in this country”.
Crick’s dedication to impartiality is not limited to criticism of right-wing bias, as shown by his departure from Channel 4 which partly resulted from what he perceived as an overly left-wing bias at the channel. Key to such impartiality is the distance Crick likes to maintain between himself and the politicians. “There’s always a balance in journalism… between getting close to the decision-makers and the powerful people, and sometimes that closeness can develop into friendship… and standing back, keeping a distance and asking tough questions”.
In Crick’s eyes, “being a journalist isn’t about having an amazing brain, a lot of it is about having a natural curiosity… a natural desire, enthusiasm, to ask the question and to have the energy and the imagination… to like getting out there and going places and talking to people”. Looking over Crick’s vast career, although he strikes me as extremely intelligent, it’s clear that he will be remembered for his curiosity. Asking questions, and follow-ups, trying to break through the polished and rehearsed personas of politicians and actually bringing out the truth for the benefit of the audience.
Most importantly, this is a man dedicated to his craft, in love with his profession. He cannot fail to hide his excitement when he speaks of the adventures of the political journalist, meeting new people everyday. His love for journalism is strengthened by his desire for journalism to remain a healthy industry, and for it return to greater impartiality. His is rightly one of Britain’s greatest journalists, and yes, every politician should be scared when they hear the words ‘Michael Crick is in reception’.
With more people continuing Crick’s forthright and skilled journalism, whether it is through doorstepping politicians, creating political reports on key issues, and highlighting the selection process of our elected representatives, we can be more confident that politicians don’t get away with too much. As John Rentoul wrote in a Spectator article some time ago, “One of the crowning glories of the uncodified British constitution is ‘Michael Crick’.” Politics is only healthier thanks to his contributions.
Image: Shayan Barjesteh van Waalwijk van Doorn via Wikimedia Commons