Here is the news: BBC journalists are standing tall again
Peter Horrocks, the BBC's TV News boss, has his critics, but as No 10's press power falters, he's put the starch back into Auntie's bloomers
Sunday 13 November 2005
Since Peter Horrocks was appointed head of BBC Television News in September his admirers have voiced one fond criticism. Horrocks is a BBC lifer, who joined straight after graduating from Cambridge in 1981. He has never ventured outside and colleagues say he is so attuned to corporate orthodoxy that his opinions reflect the BBC's collective mood. If so, the corporation is enjoying a spectacular upturn in confidence that may banish memories of Lord Hutton as well as launching a new era of investigative journalism.
In the atmosphere of self-flagellation that swept the BBC after Greg Dyke's resignation, Mark Byford, the acting director-general, declared: "The notion of exclusive here, exclusive there, exclusive everywhere is not appropriate for the BBC ... what people really come to the BBC for is trust and reliability." Peter Horrocks strikes a different tone. "Professionally the thing I take most pride in is standing up for my journalists and enabling them to do their jobs and if necessary to cause trouble. Invariably, if that sort of reporting is done well, it means that people in powerful positions don't like it."
He is unambiguous about his appetite for exclusives. "Given that people pay a large part of their licence fee for a news service, and news is by definition about new information, that should not be information from wires or agency video. Most news organisations do proactive journalism as well as reactive journalism and the BBC has to be in that game as well."
He accepts that the spectre of Andrew Gilligan and Lord Hutton may have created an impediment in journalists' minds. He plans to banish it. "In the last few weeks we have had Richard Watson's (Newsnight) report about Mohammed Siddique Khan [the suspected ringleader of 7 July bombings]. It contained strong intelligence information that Siddique Khan was on the security services' radar. But that was not properly followed through. That was a piece of investigative journalism based on a single intelligence source and with potential to embarrass. It is a good example of us being able to break a story in the field that Gilligan got into hot water over."
Is that because the Government's confidence has declined, as the BBC's has grown? Horrocks says politics has got "more interesting", and that controversy at Westminster is "good for business". He explains: "The erosion of the iron grip of the Downing Street information machine and the consistency of the information coming from government has changed in the last few weeks. It has meant that at times we have reported what we understood to be the case about political developments and then a few hours later the information has changed and we have had to report something different."
He cites the handling by government of the failed 90-day proposal on the detention of terrorist suspects. "On Monday, the Home Secretary said they were backtracking on 90 days and by the end of the day they were sticking to 90 days. Reporting that is a challenge because it can seem as if we are changing our mind when the truth is that the Government can't make up its mind."
Is such vacillation a symptom of a changed relationship between the Blair government and the BBC? Horrocks is blunt: "No 10 is not able to co-ordinate and present as consistent a view of what government is saying, as in the past."
One senior BBC journalist says: "The [Government's] authority is dripping away and its spin doctors are giving us different views." Horrocks says this erosion of central authority has created a relationship different from the one that existed during the Gilligan crisis. "Since David Hill has been at No 10 it is not the same as under Camp- bell. If we get things wrong, or they don't like what we say, they ring us up, but it's not the old Alastair stuff."
It is an assertive line, but is Horrocks talking tough to deflect attention from spending cuts and controversial changes? Last week he announced plans to streamline the staffing of the one and six o'clock bulletins on BBC1 and appoint a single editor to run both programmes. He says the objective is to focus re- sources on the BBC's rolling news channel. "News 24 will provide more breaking news. It will be the first outlet for original journalism."
Some BBC journalists dismiss this as hypocrisy. They claim Horrocks threatened to resign as editor of Newsnight in 1997 when a proposal to change the editorial structure provoked furious resistance from journalists, including John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Horrocks says: "I didn't threaten to resign, but I protested strongly against the proposals and made it clear I thought they were unworkable. I was a rebel, but those proposals were about causing confusion about who was in charge of particular bits of output. In the changes I am making there is no question about who is in charge."
At Television Centre, concern persists that Horrocks regards News 24 as the new flagship of BBC TV journalism. He calls it "the visible expression of the BBC's journalistic firepower" and insists it will become more important with the digital switchover.
But he is determined to maintain the identity of his terrestrial bulletins. Key to this is his commitment to celebrity presenters. Proclaiming himself happy with the profile of stars including Natasha Kaplinsky, Fiona Bruce and Huw Edwards, he explains: "Programmes on mainstream channels need distinctive presenters and building the programme's character around them is important."
The same does not apply on News 24. "The motivation for going to watch a news channel is primarily the news. There are key people on News 24, but we make sure the strongest correspondents appear as well. Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, was commenting in trenchant fashion about the significance of the Government's defeat within minutes of the vote on Wednesday."
Sceptical colleagues dismiss this as "pretty faces and human interest stories on BBC1, hard news on the rolling channel". Horrocks is certainly leading a shift of energy. But if he honours his commitment to original journalism, complaints about prioritising News 24 will remain internal. Any exclusives broken on the digital channel will appear on BBC1 news programmes later. Licence payers should have no reason to object.
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