Rob Watson broadcasts to an audience of up 394 million on a weekly basis as the UK correspondent for the BBC World Service, currently a ridiculously busy and high profile job.
Lesser know than his more prominent contemporary BBC1 colleagues perhaps, on a busy day the Oxford resident can nevertheless notch up around 30 global TV and radio broadcasts a day. “The Cummings saga was a 05.00 period put it that way,” he says wryly.
“I am a self admitted news junkie. I can’t relax until I read the headlines and know what’s going on”
Rob’s next engagement however is to interview Labour MP for Oxford East Anneliese Dodds for Oxford Festival Of The Arts tomorrow, which he is undertaking virtually.
Not a big stretch for someone who has been interviewing people for a living for the past 30 years. So how did the 59 year-old start out in the news game? Was he a budding Kate Adie from the word go?
“No, not really, I was just one of this irritating children who always asked why. If someone said ‘go over there’ or ‘sit down’ I wanted to know why. It was sheer bloody-mindedness really that got me here, the urge to be quarrelsome in the face of authority.”
“I have spent the last 30 years waiting for that call about the next big story, permanently on edge, although I’m used to it now”
How did that go down at school then? (Rob is a former MCS pupil) “They really encouraged it. I remember my history teacher comparing me to Holden Caulfield in Catcher In The Rye. It was a very liberal, intellectual institution where children were very much encouraged to think and speak for themselves, as they are now. But I didn’t have my heart set on journalism back then if that’s what you mean.”
Having said that, Rob’s first job was with the BBC working on arts programmes, until a producer was ill and Tom had to write and then present the show himself.
Progressing to Newshour in 1989, the new World Service Radio flagship current affairs programme, he saw action all over the world, starting with the fall of communism, before moving to Washington and then New York.
I’m lucky I’ve had a front row seat at these huge global events, been right in the thick of the action, and covered the world’s trajectory over the past 40 years, and yet right now I’ve never been busier.”
“That’s what interested me and has done ever since – the big changes, trends, events. But it has also meant that I have spent the last 30 years waiting for that call about the next big story, permanently on edge, although I’m used to it now,” he admits.
“I am a self admitted news junkie. I can’t relax until I read the headlines and know what’s going on.
“But then if there is a terror attack here, or a member of the royal family dies, that’s me, that’s my job, so I need to be alert. I suppose you could say I am always on duty. So yes, I do find it hard to switch off.”
How does Rob cope mentally with that pressure? “I’ve learned to pace myself, although in the past few months that’s been quite hard. I became a news correspondent to cover the biggest stories and it’s such a privilege to do so. I feel so lucky. If I was a shopkeeper during a really busy period, I wouldn’t shut up shop and say ‘sorry can you all leave I don’t want your business’ would I’?
“I was just one of this irritating children who always asked why. If someone said ‘go over there’ or ‘sit down’ I wanted to know why. It was sheer bloody-mindedness really that got me here”
“I’ve had a front row seat at all these huge global events, right in the thick of the action, and covered the world’s trajectory over the past 40 years, and yet right now I’ve never been busier.”
So did Rob see it coming? “In the 90s the UK was a rich, stable, prosperous country largely disinterested in politics, certainly compared with the rest of the world. But I could never have predicted what was to come, because in the last five years that has changed irrevocably. Brexit is certainly the biggest political crisis we have faced since WW2 and I stand by that. It has certainly challenged the world’s view of the UK.”
Is it harder to be objective as a Brit? “It’s interesting because my job is to report on the UK as if it’s a foreign country, unlike the rest of the my BBC colleagues on national news. But being impartial is drummed into you and our absolute number one trump card at the BBC is to be impartial, detached and insightful.”
Rob is so fascinating to talk to it takes a while to get around to the main reason for our interview – tomorrow’s talk with MP Anneliese Dodds. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s not going to be a savaging like Andrew Neil on a good day, but neither is going to be a party political broadcast for the Labour party,” he says. “I’m hoping for a civilised conversation with lots of interaction and questions form the general public so I think it will be fun.”
Anneliese Dodds MP is in conversation with Rob Watson BBC Political Correspondent on June 19 from 6.30pm. https://artsfestivaloxford.org/events/anneliese-dodds-mp-in-conversation-with-the-bbcs-rob-watson/
OFAVirtual 2020 runs from June 18th to July 5th. For more details visit www.artsfestivaloxford.org