BBC's new man won't back down

There's a fresh hand on the corporation's news tiller, and it's braced for action. Ian Burrell meets the man who wants to bring the public into the fold
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The Independent Online

Horrocks, who was running a half marathon, makes no secret of his competitive instinct and will be looking to his BBC news colleagues to quicken their pace. "Being first is a good thing, that's what news is about," he says. "Being first and right is very important, but we need to be first with breaking news, first with analysis, and we need to be first with investigations."

The BBC hasn't been first to all the big stories of late. It was ITV News that landed the most memorable scoop of the London bombings story (footage of the dramatic arrest of two of the alleged bombers) and Sky News was the first to recognise the importance of moving star reporters to the scene of the tsunami.

But Horrocks, 46, who has been the BBC's head of current affairs for the past five years (overseeing Panorama and a string of landmark documentaries), thinks important lessons have been learned.

He talks in the language of a five-star general controlling his forces: "It's maintaining that network of front-line capability and then deploying the big guns as rapidly as possible."

The BBC's unrivalled international network of journalists means that it has a "natural advantage" in getting to stories in Banda Aceh or New Orleans first, he notes, but "what we've then got to do is to send in our strongest firepower in terms of our best correspondents - the Matt Freis, the Jeremy Bowens - and then the top presenters - the George Alagiahs, the people who have real credibility in the field."

The key lesson learned by the BBC from the London bombings was the importance of audience interaction, in terms of pictures and eye-witness accounts being sent to broadcasters by mobile phone or e-mail. For Horrocks, trust is the central issue in ensuring that the citizen journalist elects to give their material to the BBC rather than to a rival organisation.

"I think there is more the BBC can do," he admits. "The BBC is a big institution and we know from audience research that some people find it slightly forbidding and we need to make it warm, accessible and open." This thinking is reflected in the BBC e-mail address for such information, Horrocks says: "The idea is that it's your information not ours."

A forthcoming BBC3 documentary on citizen journalists has also been an illuminating exercise for Horrocks and his senior colleagues. "Some of them had only taken the pictures because they thought they were going to be late for work and wanted something to show the boss. Very few of them thought of themselves as journalists, and no-one that we've interviewed thought about the commercial potential," he says. "The idea for most of them that there was any commercial motivation is anathema. They trusted the BBC to treat the information respectfully and, where appropriate, to pass it on to the police."

Of course, not everyone has followed this path to the door of the public broadcaster, most notably Nick Sophocleous, an amateur cameraman who chose to sell his pictures of the arrests of two bombing suspects for £60,000 to ITV (and the Daily Mail), even though he was also negotiating with the BBC and Sky.

Horrocks accepts that the BBC will "probably be outbid" in future auctions for pictures. "If we get outbid that's unfortunate, but so be it," he says, noting that the BBC is bidding with public money. "I think it's much, much safer ground for the BBC to be on. There are plenty of people who realise that news and commercialism don't mix well."

The run of enormous news stories - whether natural or political in content - has been almost relentless in the past two years, he acknowledges.

"In the past we have thought of these major news events as one-offs. Now we see them coming closer and closer together. We can prepare ourselves. You can't predict the unpredictable, but you can be ready to throw the right resources and the right journalistic intelligence at those events," he says. Horrocks believes that the scale of the BBC, sometimes a reason for inflexibility in the past, must be turned into an asset, as it offers unrivalled context and explanation.

"Our job shouldn't be to give [the audience] false comfort, but what we can do is to give them really clear information and a depth of understanding about the causes of those things," he says.

It was Horrocks who executive-produced Adam Curtis's award-winning The Power of Nightmares, which brilliantly exposed the potential for politicians to exploit, for their own ends, the public's fear of terrorism.

Recently Horrocks was in the audience at the Edinburgh Television Festival when one prominent speaker glibly suggested that - in the wake of London bombings that had made the nightmares a reality - the programme did not now seem so clever. But Horrocks, who joined the BBC as a trainee in 1981, has no regrets, having also overseen such productions as last year's Dirty War, which dramatically constructed the possible consequences of a dirty bomb being detonated in central London. Some scenes were disturbingly similar to some of the news pictures broadcast in the wake of the 7 September attacks.

The Power of Nightmares, he points out, did not say there was no threat from al-Qa'ida.

"What it did say was that that al-Qa'ida was more significant a threat as an idea than it was, or is, as an organisation. I think that is in some ways more true than it was when it was transmitted in November last year," he says. The strength of the programme was to get the viewer to challenge the "received wisdom" of governments, and indeed journalists, claims the new chief of BBC television news.

Horrocks also believes that the BBC is big enough to incorporate an increasing breadth of views (including extremist ones), while subjecting each of them to the same level of rigorous scrutiny and then leaving viewers to judge the merits of the arguments.

"In the past BBC impartiality was often defined as a middling course," he says. He wants to encourage audiences to "think more for themselves" rather than "be told by the BBC 'This is what you should think'."

In the appointment of Horrocks, the BBC has chosen a journalist who is unlikely to back down from controversy in a period when the corporation is anxious to show it has recovered from the trauma of the Hutton inquiry.

A former editor of Panorama and Newsnight, his impulse of "challenging received wisdom" has led him many times into situations where he has had to "back up tough and difficult journalism that has led us into arguments with political parties, big organisations and governments".

Horrocks promises to bring the same level of executive support to the makers of news programmes when their stories place them in conflict with the powerful.

"I passionately believe in the importance of the BBC being able to do that. Not because it has its own agenda and is trying to drag down people in authority, but because it is doing its job on behalf of its audiences. It's that kind of instinct that has got me into scrapes with those in power in the past, and that kind of instinct I will bring to news," he says.