It's said in political circles that the most terrifying words in English are “Michael Crick is in reception”. The Channel 4 news reporter is so famed for hotly pursuing politicians through Whitehall for answers that the sight of him puffing and sweating, microphone extended, is more of a trademark than Jon Snow’s ties.
So it’s odd to be sitting opposite the self-described “anorak” asking the questions. He has just been at Tory spring conference (where he was given a Stasi-style “minder”) and is every bit as nondescript as on telly: mousy hair, thin top lip, wire-framed specs: an egoless obsessive with a core of northern rigour. I’m not surprised he’s an avid collector — of football programmes, postage stamps and political mugs (250 hang in his study, the rest in the spare room as they “upset” his partner, Lucy Hetherington, a TV producer with whom he has a 10-year-old daughter) — or that he can name all the Cabinets since the Seventies.
Today he’s fresh from his latest scoop on election expenses fraud, an investigation into how the Tories allegedly allocated local campaign spending to national budgets to circumvent strict limits on spending caps in 2015.
Crick’s relentless “nibbling” at the story — “I’ve done 42 different items on it over the past 14 months” — prompted the Electoral Commission to slap a £70,000 fine on the Tories. Simon Day, the Conservatives’ former treasurer, has been referred to the Metropolitan Police, while 12 other forces are investigating 20 MPs. The Crown Prosecution Service will decide whether to bring prosecutions in June. Last week Theresa May finally gave a response to the issue, although pointedly not to Crick.
Instead viewers were treated to the sight of Nick Timothy, one of May’s joint chiefs of staff, scuttling away as Crick thumped him with questions on why his bill from the Royal Harbour hotel in South Thanet was not on the local budget, when he was allegedly helping campaign against Ukip locally.
It is hilarious. It’s also important. A month earlier, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall was “Cricked”. He had registered his address as 65 Oxford Street, Stoke-on-Trent, to stand in the February by-election, but Crick found the property empty.
“It’s almost a sport,” says Crick of chasing his subjects down. “Although I shouldn’t say that because we’re talking about serious things. But there is an element of hunting. Or fishing.”
The Prince of Wales and Tony Blair have been victims (he asks me if I’ve seen clips on “the YouTube”). He would love to do Donald Trump “and be thrown out”. Is there anyone he wouldn’t ambush? God, perhaps? He replies in a flash, “I would say, ‘Are you there?’”
Jeremy Corbyn squirms most under Crick’s spotlight. “In the early days Corbyn’s people would assault [the media] and put their hands over cameras. And Corbyn got annoyed when I did him two weeks ago in Stoke. He hates answering questions. He’s never been in a high position in politics before so doesn’t understand that this is part of the cut and thrust of media and politics. You get asked questions when you don’t want to be. And it looks bad if you start pushing journalists or moaning.”
Doorstepping isn’t personal, he adds. For instance, Philip May, husband of the Prime Minister, is an old friend from Oxford, and “handled it very well” when Crick surprised him with a microphone and camera at party conference. “He’s incredibly nice and I doubt he has an enemy in the world,” says Crick. “He laughed and said, ‘Takes us back to the old days’. He’s always been nice. But dull.”
Both were presidents of the Oxford Union. Crick knew Theresa May back then too. “Although she left in 1977, she carried on coming up at the weekends because Philip was two years below her. All the presidents would ask her to speak because a lot of women speakers at that time weren’t much good. She also had a sense of humour, which still shows every now and then.” Her ascent was unexpected, he says. “Nobody would have predicted she would be Prime Minister one day.”
She was a great cook, he remembers. “They asked me for dinner one Saturday when they lived in Wimbledon. Manchester United were playing at Leicester and I thought, ‘I’ve just about got enough time to get up there and back’. My flatmate drove and it went well until we broke down on the M1. I had no way of telling the Mays and didn’t get there until half past 10. I’ve always felt terribly guilty. As a result I never invited them back, which was probably a mistake.”
Actually, Crick says he’s “wary” of the Lobby — parliamentary journalists — partly because he’s “a bit shy”, partly because he prefers to “go it alone” but also because some of them are too close to politicians. “There are journalists who are hugely dependent on being ‘in’. Others don’t depend on the system. I am at the latter end. I always think if the crowd is going over there, it’s probably good to go over here. That’s paid off.”
Clubbable journalists, he says, can contribute to the feeling that Westminster is a bubble. “One of the things I bang on about is broadcasters addressing politicians by their Christian names. It looks too chummy.” But he does believe in respecting his interviewees, insisting, for instance, on always wearing a tie.
His method is to research assiduously before role-playing questions with his producer. “He’ll be the subject and then we’ll turn it round and he’ll be me. It sharpens the questions.” He knows his targets will often ignore him but believes this gives the viewers “drama” while “making the point that they don’t want to answer”.
While some might argue it’s stunt journalism, Crick points out that it has long been a tactic in political reporting. “I was inspired by Joy Johnson, who worked for the BBC and ITN in the Eighties. Correspondents didn’t want to shout questions at ministers in Downing Street so they’d send her instead. And that was inspired in turn by a journalist in Washington called Sam Donaldson, who was huge in the Reagan era. It got to the stage where the White House would run helicopter blades noisily so no one could throw questions at Reagan, so Donaldson got himself a megaphone.”
Another influence was Channel 4 News’ David Smith. He was its Moscow correspondent during the era of Glasnost and Perestroika and would get “great stuff” by going to politicians’ homes to ask them questions. “When he went to Washington he did the same. I copied him. Thirty seconds can be a lot more telling than a 10-minute interview when they’re on their guard.”
Colleagues say he is “fun”, and are amused by his ability to catalogue facts and figures (“If you say to him, say, ‘Judy’s been here for 20 years’, he’ll say, ‘Actually, she’s been here for 24 years on May 10th’”) so perhaps it’s not surprising that his next book, his ninth, is a biography of Sir David Butler, the man who pioneered the statistical study of elections and voting — psephology — the swingometer, and who was the BBC’s election pundit from 1950 to 1979.
“He wrote a book called British Political Facts,” says Crick. “As a student, he bought a copy of The Times Guide to the House of Commons because he was interested in politics and there wasn’t any county cricket in the summer of 1945 — he normally spent his time compiling batting and bowling averages. Instead he went through the election results, which were in raw numbers, and transferred them into percentages.” Crick scoffs when I suggest he might have the same brain, but admits to having been a huge trainspotter.
He believes scandals are grossly under-reported. “I reckon journalists uncover about one per cent of what is going on,” he says. “A lot of wrongdoing is complicated. Financial fraud, for example — you have to be a brilliant accountant to understand it. All we can do is keep plugging away while covering the day-to-day stuff. Television doesn’t really have the resources and it does require risk-taking.”
Crick joined ITN as a trainee and was a founding member of Channel 4 News before joining the BBC’s Panorama and then Newsnight, where he had a tricky time with Jeremy Paxman. “He did suffer from depression, poor old Jeremy, and was easily bored,” he says. “His trick to be cutting was to say, live, ‘Well Michael have you got anything interesting to say?’ The response should’ve been, ‘Well, Jeremy, do you have anything interesting to ask?’ But I always thought if I was involved in an on-screen spat, he’s much cleverer and would win.”
Crick “has never been happier” at work than now, he says. “My only fear is that my television obituary will be a string of my doorsteps. And I like to think I’ve done a bit more than that.”