Interview: Robert Nisbet

When Stephen ‘Red Badge’ Crane questioned his secondment to a peaceful Cuba to cover a non-existent war, the legendary newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst reputedly told him by telegraph, “You provide story. I’ll provide war.” Sky News’ Europe Correspondent, Robert Nisbet, has fortunately needed no such interventions, his appointment coinciding with a series of events that has once again placed Europe at the heart of world news.

The most recent of those events was the Paris terror attacks. The response to the attacks were “fascinating,” he said. “I’ve seen other campaigns move much more slowly, this exploded in a few hours… You got the sense that the protesters were fighting for the French way of life.”

In contrast, Nisbet talks about the relative lack of coverage on the simmering war between Russia and Ukraine – the first major seizure of another country’s territory in Europe since the Second World War. Nisbet was frank about the frustrations of his job. “This is,” he responds resignedly, “the nature of modern news. The news cycle has sped up, stories that used to linger in bulletins when I was young are being used up and spat out. As for Ukraine, I am not sure that either side will back down. When I was reporting in the Crimea it very much felt like Russia… Any effective response is a long way off.”

I ask him whether he has any ethical qualms about reporting on events when there is little he can do to help. He talks about reporting in Haiti. “When we arrived we went to a collapsed school to make our report. As soon as we got out of the car my cameraman tripped over the corpse of a child in the rubble.

“At that moment you have to check yourself, calm down and get on with your job… but there is always something useful in shining a light on these stories. It can produce positive results.”

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Recalling one particular experience in Haiti, Nisbet says, “[We] were stood on the roof of an airport, on our right lay piles and piles of aid, and behind the fence on our left were thousands of desperate people. We thought there was something seriously wrong, and so we reported on it. Within a few days, the aid was getting to the people who needed it. The story had a purpose and made a difference.”

And his best news story? “A story that I’ll remember was the Chilean miners because it was so unexpected. I was with a group of families watching round a television when the first miner walked out of the rock. I am usually quite cynical about this sort of thing; what heartened me was that our audiences went through the roof. News stories don’t always have to be about death and destruction, the best news can be a heart-warming story where you need only point a camera at it and it speaks for itself.”

Nisbet clearly enjoys the journalistic lifestyle. When we spoke, he was just about to fly out from his home in Brussels to Greece to report on a possible ‘Grexit’. His career has embraced reporting on the Amanda Knox trials, Obama’s 2008 election campaign, and interviews with icons such as Robin Williams, George Clooney and even Gorbachev.

I ask him about the US election campaign, and he laughs wryly. “Obama was at a fair, and I, in a clump of reporters yelled at him above the clamour, ‘What do you hope to achieve in the future?’ He replied ‘I just want to eat this corndog,’ and ran away. As my father said, it was hardly Frost and Nixon.”

While the immediate
 concern may be with 
a ‘Grexit’, the shadow of 
a ‘Brexit’ must also loom large for a European correspondent. How does Nisbet think the story will play out? “In 2011 when everything was going to pot with the debt crisis, even then talking to European diplomats the response they gave was ‘Britain always threatens to leave, always nothing comes of it.’ Now there is a change in the air. The contempt felt by the British people for the EU is strengthening.”

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Nisbet claims that some diplomats think David Cameron actually wants Britain to leave as a ploy to win short term political gain, “though that’s not my opinion,” he qualifies. “It all comes down to a fundamental difference between Britain and the rest of the countries in the EU… there is an emotional attachment to a united Europe that British people just do not share.”

“People like Farage take advantage by stripping it of its nuance. He knows that if you mention facts and details you sound boring. Take the debate between Farage and Clegg. Clegg gave facts and figures, Farage gave emotive rhetoric. He knows that you can win on the broad brush strokes but lose on the detail.”

I finish by asking for advice for aspiring journalists. “Inhale information. Read everything. I read everything from the Financial Times to Buzzfeed… You must remember
that the media isn’t dying, it’s changing. Your generation has
 to adapt and find your place in it. 
As consumers and maybe as reporters, it is up to you to adapt our news, whilst keeping its integrity.”