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BBC's new hardman.. haunted by teenage tragedy; NICK ROBINSON EXCLUSIVE: TRAPPED IN CAR SMASH AS HIS BEST FRIENDS DIE.

Byline: By FIONA CUMMINS

H E has made a name as one of the hard men of TV news after relentlessly barracking Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But behind Nick Robinson's famous square specs and hard-hitting questions lies a man haunted by a teenage tragedy.

The BBC's new political editor, who replaces Andrew Marr, was 18 when two of his friends were killed in a head-on car crash.

Trapped in the back of the burning two-door Beetle, Nick felt sure he too was doomed. But he was pulled from the wreckage, seconds from death.

Nick, 41, still mourns for his "soulmate" and best pal Will Redhead, and their mutual friend James Nelson. He is still haunted by the accident.

"I remember it all," he sighs. "Our car had a head-on collisionand exploded. The two boys in front were killed and I was trapped in the back. "I distinctly remember giving up, thinking I wouldn't get out. I don't know how I I made it but I remember being on the road, being looked after. I was amazingly lucky."

Doctors were astounded by Nick's recovery and he has never forgotten how fortunate he was to escape.

"I was pretty badly burned," he says, running his hand over the pale pink scars on his arms.

"Sometimes people ask if I have bad eczema. Although I got heavy burns, they weren't in places that caused me any difficulties moving or were cosmetically bad."

Nick endured a series of skin grafts and had to wear pressure bandages for months following the smash near Lille, in northern France.

The three friends were only two hours into a month-long trip around Europe when the car crashed. But Nick's injuries meant he spent five weeks in hospital and was forced to defer his place at University College, Oxford, fora year. Doctors also said he was too unwell to attend his friends' funerals. "That was a great sadness to me," he admits. "Will had been my best friend since I was eight. I think about him a lot. James was a newer friend.

"The sadness is that when you go through a wedding, first job, children, you think, 'what would they be doing?'"

It was Will's father, Brian Redhead - the former Radio 4 Today presenter - who encouraged Nick to pursue his dream and become a journalist after the accident.

And it was during his recuperation that Nick had his first taste of broadcasting, with Piccadilly Radio in Manchester.

After graduating he joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1986. He rose to become the deputy editor of Panorama and On The Record, chief political correspondent on BBC News 24 and presenter of Westminster Live, then jumped ship to ITV in 2002.

Nick admits he cried when he told ITV colleagues he was leaving. "It was seeing all those faces that did it," he recalls.

Nick's soft side will astound his critics, who have lambasted him for being too aggressive.

In the run-up to last year's general election, he barracked the PM and the Chancellor, challenging them to back claims that the Tories planned pounds 35billion cuts to public services. The verbal jousting raised eyebrows, including Nick's.

"Yes, I was surprised. You never really see this normally. I ended up going to and fro, like a fast tennis match. It was a rally that lasted.... I haven't counted... 12 shots? That's quite rare.

"But I think I was justified. Is it our job to just chuck it on the telly or to say, 'hang on, there are real question marks over this claim'?"

N ICK was also pulled aside by a furious Mr Blair after he asked why there were only white faces in the specially invited crowd for a speech on immigration in Dover.

"He wasn't best pleased. What he wanted to know was why I had done it. He's not daft enough to tick me off. But I now think that wasn't the way to ask that question."

Nick shrugs off accusations of right-wing bias, despite being the former head of the Young Conservatives. "That was a long time ago," he says. "I do vote but it's not always the same way."

Originally from Macclesfield in Cheshire, Nick met his wife Pippa, a relationship counsellor, at university. They wed 14 years ago and have three children, Alice, 10, Will, eight - named in memory of his best friend - and five-year-old Harry. It was Nick's wife who selected her husband's trademark glasses - Gucci, by the way.

Pippa chose them after he was described as looking like a "head boy" and a fashion expert advised him to pick a distinctive pair or risk fading into the background. Sadly, the short-sighted newsman doesn't get on with contact lenses and his specs have attracted stacks of hate-mail from viewers.

"When you're on TV, people will say things that are incredibly personal without thinking about it," says Nick.

"I got an anonymous letter in an A4 envelope and written, in green crayon, was 'You should have gone to Spec Savers'." Referring to the BBC's former political editor Andrew Marr, another missive said: "Big ears has been replaced by big specs."

Nick's sometimes irreverent approach to politics means he makes frequent appearances on shows such as TV's Naughtiest Blunders.

He's the journalist who informed a red-faced John Prescott it was actually a live interview after the deputy PM said his answer was "crap" and asked for a retake.

"He thought it was very funny. We looked each other in the eye and knew that we'd either break down laughing or somehow keep going. So I curled my toes up into my shoes and asked a long-winded question so he'd have time to compose himself."

Nick, who'll work on the Today programme and the 10 O'Clock News, also reveals that he used to broadcast to the nation in his boxer shorts.

"When I worked on Radio Five Live I sometimes had to call in reports from home.

"I promise not to do it this time but I used to test myself, to discover the shortest time possible between being asleep and being on air. Eventually, I got it down to two minutes.

"I don't think I was ever in the nude but I'd wear a stray pair of boxer shorts."

Just then, Nick receives a text message. Is it urgent news from the Prime Minister or Chancellor?

"No," he laughs. "It's from my wife, saying: 'Can you buy a cat-flap?'"

CAPTION(S):

EAR HE GOES: Former Beeb man Andrew Marr; IRREVERENT: Nick reports from Westminster; STAYING FOCUSED: Nick Robinson has swapped networks and is now the BBC's new political editor
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 6, 2005
Words:1106
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