The Man with the [Pounds Sterling]35bn Question; ITV News' Political Editor Nick Robinson Has Twice Put the PM on the Spot during the Election Campaign, but Is It a Stunt to Get Noticed?

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Byline: DAVID ROWAN

POLITICAL editors don't generally become the story during an election campaign. But Nick Robinson, of ITV News, has developed a curious ability in recent weeks to find his name all over the next day's papers.

Whether confronting the Prime Minister over a controversial election poster, or challenging the " allwhite" audience for Tony Blair's big immigration speech, Robinson has emerged as the campaign's most robust and persistent journalistic troublemaker. His coup-degrace was being publicly anointed a "f***ing pillock" by John Prescott.

The suspicion among Robinson's rivals is that it is a deliberate attempt to get ITV noticed - part of a trend towards reporter involvement in stories or "RI" in the industry's jargon. If viewers are turned off by the politics, the theory goes, then perhaps a more theatrical and mischievous form of reporting might attract them back.

At the very least, it gives him some lively footage to send back.

But Robinson, 41, sitting outside a Gray's Inn Road cafe between election-night rehearsals, is baffled at accusations that he is simply playing the showman. "No, the strategy has genuinely not been to get on to the front pages, or for me to get 'involved' in the election story," he says.

"My job is just to ask the right questions in a sharp and pertinent way.

There have been a couple of moments where I have become involved, but never as a result of any plan."

He first made headlines after challenging the launch of a Labour poster, claiming that the Conservatives were planning [pounds sterling]35 billion of cuts to public services. He pointed out that the figure was misleading, before firing a brutal follow-up question to the Prime Minister and Chancellor: "Can you only win this election by distorting your opponents' policies?"

That, he explains now, was simply the unplanned outcome of a "grumpy" morning after little sleep and frustration that Gordon Brown would not give a post-Budget interview. "By chance, my bureau chief said they were launching a poster down the road. I was virtually the only reporter there, as they'd not invited any." But his intervention was hardly designed as theatre, he says.

"I don't imagine down at the Dog and Duck they were discussing it. It was journalism, it was about analysis."

Labour's campaign managers were far less sanguine about his most recent intervention. Last Friday, in Dover, he asked provocatively why there were only white faces in the specially invited crowd for a speech on immigration.

"Labour had announced that Blair was doing 'the most important speech of the campaign', but that all day he would not take questions from journalists.

Now, I don't think you should do the most important speech of your campaign and not take questions. So, I asked him one.

And, to have any hope of him answering, it has to be provocative."

BLAIR'S entourage was furious, and Robinson was accused of getting his facts wrong. "There was one Asian in the audience, and that he was singled out to disprove me," says Robinson. "But we know that the big two parties carefully select audiences to give a particular appearance. Is it a great controversy to point this out? That's informing the audience."

He is concerned that party spin machines have excluded print journalists from this campaign "on an unprecedented scale". But he refuses to ally himself with "the carping school of journalism", pointing out the strategists' " security concerns" and wariness of media cynicism. Besides, he says, Blair has been far more available for questioning than expected.

But isn't that part of a strategy to silence other party voices? Where are the other front-bench politicians? "The parties are fighting to get attention on TV," he replies. …