Did BBC News fluff its lines on a night of American history?

The BBC has been criticised over its coverage of the US election, but Peter Horrocks tells Ian Burrell it was ahead on the popular vote

Monday 10 November 2008 01:00

It is the morning after election night and a tired looking Peter Horrocks, the head of the BBC newsroom, sits back in the chair in his office to review his team’s performance. Already an exchange between David Dimbleby, the corporation’s anchorman on this historic night, and the American author Gore Vidal in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory is going great guns on YouTube.

Dimbleby’s interview is the television equivalent of a multiple pile-up on the M6 motorway. “I don’t know who you are,” says Vidal of the veteran BBC man. “Haha!” responds a disbelieving Dimbleby. “Well, I know who you are.” Vidal: “Well, you’re one up on me.”

When the combative writer throws back to Dimbleby with the words “It’s your turn”, the presenter, his earpiece no doubt burning, brings the dialogue to a premature close “I think, as you might say, we’ll quit while we’re ahead Mr Vidal”.

Yet when asked to pick his highlights of the BBC’s election night coverage, Horrocks selects this strange encounter, “one of those raw moments when the guard drops”, along with an exchange between Dimbleby and BBC political editor Nick Robinson. “Nick was coming back, I think slightly tipsy, from the American embassy party and talking about how Gordon Brown and David Cameron would both like to be Barack Obama and clothe themselves in his glory,” says Horrocks. “I think Nick may have had one or two drinks, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t enjoyed himself a little bit.”

These were, indeed, two very human moments on a night of high emotion. But Horrocks is enthused by the speed of the BBC’s operation, calling the Obama victory just ahead of its British rivals and, especially, by the numbers of people who watched its coverage of the event.

The door opens and he is handed an internal document showing that 6.1 million people watched BBC1 or BBC News coverage overnight, and that 7.4 million others logged on to the BBC News website on 4 November. “We’ve had our highest ever figures online,” says Horrocks. “That and the international competition is becoming the big thing now.”

His first comment about the coverage is “we were pretty competitive with the Americans”, and though he acknowledges that “obviously we’ve got to be strong against UK competition, Sky and ITV, and we were faster than them and went to more places”, it is clear that he thinks the BBC exists in a higher place.

“The service we did was for BBC World News, the BBC News channel in the UK, BBC One and BBC America. It was only one service for all those different audiences, going head to head with CNN and the other American television services.”

Is there not the danger that by going head to head with American networks, the BBC was not giving its British audience a sufficiently bespoke service? “It’s an interesting balancing act. If we had done three or four different services for the different channels it would have been very costly.”

Horrocks, 49, admits that the BBC had to be wary of offending the American right. “It is important to remember that [the victory] is only by a few percentage points in terms of the popular vote. It doesn’t mean the whole of America is suddenly transformed into a Democratic country, not by any means. You have to be sensitive to the fact that there are some Americans who are always suspicious of non-American, European liberal voices as they see them. We must be impartial.”

Whereas Sky News was able to immerse itself in the euphoria among Obama supporters on the American streets, the BBC had to give greater prominence to the consequences of the result for the Republican Party, covering the event with self-conscious even-handedness, rather than as a foreign broadcaster only interested in the big story.

“Sky have a great sense of drama and they go for a high adrenaline style. I admire them, but it’s a different kind of approach,” says Horrocks. “We get that human drama across, but people also expect a broader perspective. We don’t focus as much on human interest and sensation and drama as much as Sky because we’ve got a different kind of ethos.”

The BBC trounced its old rival ITN, but many commentators were unimpressed. Andrew Pettie, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said the BBC’s coverage wavered between “stilted” and “stultifying”, claiming the corporation had “fluffed its lines” on a historic night. “Dear old David Dimbleby, his spectacles perched precariously close to the end of his nose, didn’t so much resemble a BBC elder statesman as a bumbling headmaster late for the morning assembly.”

Horrocks, his own spectacles balanced on his knee, strongly defends the coverage, denying that Jeremy Vine’s touch screen graphics were a flop, describing Dimbleby as “a very experienced and respected person”, and praising John Simpson’s post-result reports from Chicago and Clive Myrie’s piece from an emotionally charged black college in Atlanta.

“We called the election before our British competitors, we immediately went into a long sequence with fantastic graphics showing Obama had won and crowds around the country reacting to what was happening. That was absolutely getting the human drama, the emotion of the moment and jubilant tears of joy.”

He watched the coverage at his home in East Sheen, south-west London, on a mini-gallery comprised of two televisions and two lap-tops, so he could monitor the competition. The UK newspaper websites, he says, “weren’t really at the races”. He also does not sound very impressed by Sky’s use of a ‘white house’ in Florida as a studio, nor by ITV’s deployment of the comedian Jon Culshaw as a pundit, although he naturally says diversity is a good thing.

The BBC news executive admits that he was concerned by the lack of black faces in the BBC’s coverage on such a moment in history. “I think if you look at some of the American broadcasters – and this is true of the BBC, ITV and Sky – we don’t have as mixed [line-ups], both in on-air BBC people and commentators, a diverse range of people. You suddenly see Obama there in the biggest role in the world and it really makes you think about that. I have got senior responsibility within BBC news for diversity and it was one of the things that struck me overnight and struck me this morning. It’s something that we still haven’t made enough progress on and it’s a good reminder,” he says, in hindsight. “I think if we had thought about it probably we could have done with one or two more African-American faces on the panels.”

These are interesting times for Horrocks, with the BBC itself at the top of the news bulletins due to the scandal over prank phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs. It was a delicate balancing act that the department got right, he says. “We have this close relationship with the audience where they are emailing and texting us… we could tell that a part of the audience was very concerned about this,” he says. “It [also] became clear that there was a significant part of the audience that was pretty relaxed and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. We reflected both views.”

He understands why rival broadcasters might have been annoyed that the head of BBC radio, Tim Davie, only gave an interview to the corporation. “If there was a big story about ITV and Michael Grade only gave an interview to ITN, we would have felt concerned.”

But Horrocks rejects the suggestion by Jack Straw that the BBC goes too easy on its executives, citing a tough interview of its director general Mark Thompson by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. “It’s a pretty extraordinary organisation where top presenters can be paid to give the boss a pretty hard time and he completely supports that.”

As Obama began his attempts to change America, most of the 175-strong BBC US election team headed back home with an apparent sense of a job well done. They had not, in spite of going head to head with the US networks, secured an interview with either candidate.

Horrocks hopes the first black leader of America will now use the BBC as his conduit to the world. “We will see if we can get an interview before or shortly after the inauguration to talk about foreign policy and America’s relationship with the world,” he says. “The fact that the BBC has got 250 million people who use its news services is a big thing for any American politician to think about.”

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