Peter Horrocks: “In NoTW case, the BBC should probably have done something more”

(, click here to see the Italian version)

By Josephine CondemiReggio Calabria, 23th July 2011. Peter Horrocks, BBC World Service’s director, joins Tabularasa, event focused on journalism and scandals. We asked him more details about his opinion on public service and Britain and Italy’s last scandals.

Which is the meaning of the public value in the BBC charter and what’s the public service for the BBC?

The BBC has a number of public purposes, laid down in the BBC Charter (which is like a law for the BBC), decided by the government: there are a number of them important for journalism. One is about support the civil society, just basically supporting democracies by giving people information….impartial, objective information about the news, backing them to make their decision as citizens. And we also have a responsibility in terms of news for the world and then we have responsibility for the regions of Britain, to reflect the regions of Britain. So we have these three purposes about our news and those are the values of the BBC, they guide what we do.

Which is the meaning of the objective information? Any partial perspective, any contact with politics or what? Which are the main characteristics of an objective information?

We usually call it “impartial”, but it also means to be objective as well. The idea comes from the independence of the BBC: so the BBC is independent of government and is independent of commercial influence and in a broader sense it tries to be independent intellectually by standing back from issues and saying: “Let’s look at all the facts, let’s be absolutely accurate, let’s reflect all different points of view and give the public that information for them to make up their own minds”. We don’t have a view, we don’t tell people what to think, we give them the information and the analysis, and then we let them make up their own minds.

The BBC is at the same time of the Crown corporation, but independent from politics. So what is it….

Yes, you’re right. There is a paradox in that, it is difficult to explain it and the part of the BBC I am responsible for, which is the news for international audiences, that’s paid for, in a slightly different way, it’s paid for by the UK Foreign Office,  the Foreign Ministry and so when I’m talking to governments around the world, they say: “You must be doing propaganda for Britain, because you are being paid for by the Foreign Office” and I say: “No, that’s not how it works. We are given the money by the government but they say to us: ‘ report the news independently’” . So to give an example of some years ago, when the war in Iraq was happening, that was always very controversial in the UK(because it was controversial around the world): the BBC and the BBC International News reported that controversy and reported many things which were embarrassing for the British government. That’s the privilege we have: we have public money, but we have the right to criticize the policies of the British government.

But I read on the BBC protocol that the world service requires to take a “balanced British view” of international developments. So, a balanced British view: what is the meaning of “British” view?

A British view not in a sense of a view that is the British government’s view. One of the values we believe that Britain has, is to be independent minded, is to be objective, is to be rational, fair – minded…

Yes, but if you think that the BBC World Service is the evolution of the BBC Empire Service, when you read a balanced “British” view, you said there is something…

I don’t think it is a good way of describing it and I don’t use that description.

Since 2007, the Board of Governors has been replaced by the BBC Trust, but the trust model is much criticized. Why, in your opinion?

The main criticism is whether it is sufficiently independent to the BBC or whether that means that’s not able to support and champion the BBC sufficiently. So is it a regulator or is it a governing body ? And it is slightly confused between these two things: so that’s the criticism. It is quite a technical issue really, but it is not so clear as it should be. I think it’s working reasonably well, but there had been some critical discussion around that.

So for your work it’s not important….

Well, it can be, it can be, because there was a time when I was dealing with the BBC trust and they have been very supportive and wanted to help us, to be able to be effective. Another times go to the manner, acting as regulators and checking on things that we have done and so on. So it’s a slightly unusual relationship, but it’s ok.

So, the NoTW case: what’s going on in England?

I wish I knew. I mean, I think there are many more things hidden we don’t know yet about. I think in the broader sense, what we see is the result of a very competitive newspaper industry: a public that by enlarge buys newspapers, they are interested in sensational news, they want to hear stupid things about people and that economic pressure and the desire of the British public to have some sensational news, has meant the journalist too be doing things which are, in some cases, criminal. Going too far. And then you have got …. How these newspapers organizations dealt with that, once they knew those things were happening, and that in some ways becomes more serious, because if an important public organization has got criminal activity within it and isn’t doing enough to deal with it or if possibly we don’t know this yet, or it’s possibly paying compensation to people to keep quiet and not to investigate: that becomes very serious matter. So now that’s started to become public by a good journalism by another newspaper, The Guardian, and now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has set up an enquiry into the press, into the media, looking at practices and also looking at how the media is owned, because this is another big fact: how is the media owned in the UK and the concentration of power, particularly in the case of Rupert Murdoch.

The head of the SY department, that carried on investigations in 2006, is now NoTW –  but now NoTW is closed – so he’s just Times’ columnist and the NoTW chief executive was SY media consultant, between 2009 and 2010. So, isn’t it strange?

Oh, I agree, that’s terrible, yes. I think you need to have a very clear separation of roles between the press and the police and that has got confused.

But is this situation new for England or did we discover an old story?

I think there has always been a relationship between the press and the police and the way information exchange hands, but I think these more formal things with people moving from one organization to another and so on, that’s very bad.

The Guardian was among the first, even the main supporter of the enquiry, along with the NYT. The BBC paid attention to the case after its breaking, citing other newspapers sources…… didn’t you consider them, at the beginning, just as competitors’ argues?

The reason why they wouldn’t chased up the story early? That was maybe an element of that, but I think the BBC should probably have done something more. We had, we did an investigation program some months ago, which came up with some new information. Mmmh, it’s always hard to know how significant stories are and for a broadcaster that has got responsibility for news to everyone, we thought that was possibly a story that was about a relatively small thing within the media industry. The Guardian – and we all credited them – had the judgment it was much bigger, so their pursued with that and they have done a great job with that.

So, how influent was the political dimension in the breaking of the case, in your opinion? 

I think there are certain people on the left, and The Guardian is a newspaper of the left, who see Rupert Murdoch as a bad influence on media and social culture….

A sort of devil…

Exactly, and I’m sure that was an element of the Guardian and in some extent of the NYT of determination to go after him. Less as a competitor, but more as a cultural and political influence they disagree with. But what we are talking about is something criminal, it just goes beyond that political perspective and those commercial rivalries…but undoubtedly it’s a motivating factor for some of the journalists to report it, who just don’t like Murdoch and what he stands for.

Cameron declared the Press Complaints Commission’s failure … do you agree?

Sure, definitely, because they reduced the report, saying that there was no evidence that they went further than one journalist and they relied too much on the assurances of NoTW. The NoTW said there was no problem, the Press Complaints Commission said “we agree, that’s no problem”. So, how can you possibly have an independent scrutiny body that just relies for its verdict on the people, the subjects of the complain? that’s ridiculous.

So, in your opinion, instead of the Press Complaints Commission, it should be done a reform or what? Another organism?

I think that can probably be another body. I mean, the big question is whether press regulation needs to be on a statutory basis, on a legal basis, as opposed to just voluntary, self regulation, which is what we have at the moment. I think probably it will be a full statutory basis, but I think it needs to have significance further,  and it doesn’t at the moment. I don’t think we should get into the situation where every newspaper and possibly every website has to be registered and controlled in some way by the government, it’s not the right thing to do in terms of free speech. But in terms of a sanction against news organizations that don’t meet the standards, that could be a lot stronger and I think there could be a greater transparency of those organizations: they may have reporting requirements in terms of how they handle complaints, procedures, those sort of things which can mean that in the future there will be banned practices in news organizations.

Goodman, already arrested in 2006 because of the NOTW inquiry, was working for the Daily Star, Murdoch newspapers’ competitor…. Is than the whole world of the English tabloid involved?

It’s not clear. One of the BBC programs, the Newsnight program, last night reported on a significant level of phone hacking at the Sunday Mirror, which is another non Murdoch newspaper. So I think there probably will be information starting to come out about other news organizations and I think one of the things that will probably happen is that because has been indicated journalists moving from one organization to another, people do know that more things took place. News International now has a strong interest in showing what was happening elsewhere: the original line was what was happening in one place, now it’s clear it was happening on a large scale within NoTW, they will have a strong motivation for encouraging come forward and say what they have been doing in rival newspapers groups, so I think we will hear more about that. How illegal that was and whether is on the same scale of what was happening at the NoTW, I think it will be found to be as bad as it was at NoTW. That’s just regulation.

Do you know that in Italy many people think that the most impartial TG was Sky TG24, so Murdoch’s TG, maybe because Italian information is so wrong….

Possibly. It’s not the case that all Murdoch’s news outlets are biased. So, Skynews in
the UK is a very good service, very evenhanded: it has been reporting the problems of the news corporations very objectively. However…

In Italy too…

Good. However Fox News, in the US is, in my view, very biased. There has been some
research in the last few days about how it’s covered, the Murdoch’s story, and Fox News has done a tiny announce of coverage compared to CNN, for instance. So I think the political perspective is covering, influencing its judgment. So, it’s not a consistent picture and it’s not the case that every Murdoch’s news entity is producing biased news, but some of them are.

In your opinion, did Murdoch say the truth during the committee session? Because some people say that Murdoch lied…

I don’t know if we know yet….these inconsistent information: he said he didn’t know about information that the problem was wider. A journalist and a legal manager now said that wasn’t true, they have told him about it….it’s not clear.

So, in your opinion, what was the political responsibility in this case?

I think the political issue is not to do with the specifics of hackings or the aftermath of it. The political issue is much more to do with the relationship between the politicians and the press, at a senior level, but of course politicians and working journalists should have a press relationship, never based on how close that should be (it should be an honest relation etc), but clearly it’s important to democracy that reporters and politicians work closely together. The more difficult question has come when you have senior politicians meeting with the executives of these news organizations, either in terms of potentially influencing their coverage but more worryingly I think where there
are decisions that politicians might make about regulations, about ownership, etc, and that’s something that has clearly been happening very intensively in Britain. It’s very clear from information the current government has released, but also from information we know about previous government, previous labor government. The senior politician were meeting very regularly with the leaders of the Murdoch’s news organizations, but also other news organizations as well  and you expect a certain amount of it, in terms of clarifying about government’s communications and messages, but it seems to me that it has gone significantly beyond that. We don’t know exactly how, we don’t know what kind of conversations were held: but the fact that those meetings have been secret up until now, isn’t a bad thing in relation to democracy?

Brown tried to open an enquiry about some suspect practices of newspapers, when he was Prime Minister, but this enquiry never started. Why?

It’s not clear. The Chief Civil Servant and the government apparently said that it would be seen as being a political act: the act of launching of enquiries would have been seen as critical to some newspaper groups and therefore biased. It’s not clear why it didn’t happen.

Yesterday during the session in Tabularasa you said: “we don’t use illegal sources, like those of NoTW”. But when you say: “According to the NoTW, etc”….anyway you spread the news. Isn’t it?

Yes, that’s certainly possible. I mean, if it’s an allegation that we are not sure about or we don’t know where the information comes from, we wouldn’t necessarily report what other newspapers have said and I’m not aware of many significant stories that NoTW did but that the BBC reported. The strange thing is that many of the stories they got through phone hacking were very trivial, they were small stories.

So, not interesting for BBC?

No, exactly. There were not the sort of stories we were reporting anyway.

How,in your opinion, does the organization of the country reflect the mood of the people?

I mean, particularly in democracies, that’s the case, isn’t it? People vote for parties that have got a culture that reflects the culture of the society: so in terms of how productive people are, the hours they work, certainly in terms of the consensus within the society. One of the things, I think, is how willingly people pay their taxes. You laugh? I don’t know Southern Italy very well, but my understanding is that people probably the don’t pay their full taxes or a significant number of people. That’s not a particular problem in Germany or Britain: people pay their taxes: there is always this tax visuals and tax police, and people who enforce it, but the main reason why the tax take in UK is higher is not because of the enforcement, but because of the social consensus around paying taxes. I was debating this at lunch yesterday: people think it’s not worth paying their taxes because it’s on the road to get poor, but I suppose in England people would think: “I should pay more taxes, because that’s the road on we better”. That’s the difference in the mentality.

Maybe you know that in Italy some years ago there was a reform in the electoral law, in which the lists of candidates are completely chosen by parties, that decide also who will be elected through the position in the list…Maybe people have the institution that are able to have but maybe don’t…

It’s not a true sense of democracy. I mean, parties (in whatever system you have), parties do obviously have influence on who is chosen to stand for election. The British system is based on single constituencies, but with the decision on candidate taken by the local party, in that constituency. In a small number of cases, there is a primary election, to decide who the candidate for the conservative party, for instance, it’s going to be, but in most cases that’s a decision taken by local party members or executive of local parties. Generally this means that you get people who are approved by the party, but it doesn’t mean that you get some individuality in the people who are chosen by the parties: and that can help to get a slightly more independent minded group of MPs, but nevertheless MPs in British Parliament are still very much calling to what their parties want them to. But I think having a full, list – based system is a very poor thing, because it means that the control of the party machine, in who get’s elect and who doesn’t, is overwhelming and that’s very poor, because it means that the patronage is the most important way parties work.

The patronage in Italy is a sort of national custom….

Sure, sure. I understand that, in the sense of how you get a job, the way you might get educated, all these sorts of things, but it’s not a modern, a meritocratic way of doing things, in the relationship between some of these expectations that people have about how things would be done and economic success, for instance. So, if you have a system where access to job is through patronage, rather than through merit, then your bond to get people doing job who are not so good as they could be is done by open competitions and that becomes quite corrosive and anxiety, if the way in which you get a promotion or approvement is because of who you know, rather than how good you are, that’s very poor.

So do you think that patronage in Italy exists because Italy is a young republic or there is something else?

I think that’s not particularly to do with that. The actual constitutional arrangements in Germany are known older that they are in Italy and they’re both post – war constitutions. Germany has a completely different way of doing things, much more rule based, strongly rule based. I’m not an expert, but I think there are a lot of long lasting historical assumptions about how the country works, the former governments hundreds of years ago and I was looking at some maps with an economist yesterday and it showed the way he analyses government in the XIV century and the parts controlled by the Kingdom of Sicily and then he looked at the level of paying tax, levels of crime and he was speaking about things of hundreds of years, but these things lasted a long time. It’s also the role of religion then, people attitude to authority and this is something between Southern Europe and Northern Europe and this is maybe a non European perspective. It’s not barely a judgment on what is good or bad, but it seems to me that in Catholic countries by enlarge people are less questioning of authority: the population accept more that the people who have power, continue to have power and the people who have power have the right to tell the powerless how to live their lives and there is an association between that and a country having a catholic power or being strongly catholic now.

In fact the problem in Italy concern the progressive parties too…

That’s absolutely right, but might also say that the former left wing politics in Italy, so the communist, had a strong top down structure: it’s not about a left wing or a progressive way of thinking, which is about a greater independence in mind, but these communist structure where at least as centralizing and authoritarian as the Catholic Church structure.

In Italy if you are rich, maybe you are thought to have managed through ambiguous business… Do you think that maybe this Italian conception of capital, of capitalism, is the result of this doctrine catho – communist? ‘cause Marx said that all the capital is the result of a theft…

I don’t think…I wouldn’t agree with that, with that Marxist view, but I would say that it’s a kind of adaptation of capitalism that fits into patronage structures basically. So, it’s not a full blooded, completely competitive and well regulated, legally based capitalism, which is the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, with the strong elements of free market, there is more progression, but it’s not the same as the US or the British model of capitalism. In many ways it’s culture, whereas less social support, but I would say that the more important difference is the way that the law works at the level of regulation, in relation to capitalism. So you might have a capitalism which is much more competitive but then you get strong antitrust regulation and you get competition being regulated, you have strong laws about the honesty in advertising and so people have a stronger degree of competition, but within rules: there is a consensus within the society that applies. Compartment based capitalism is much more a system where the powerful people in the society can manage capitalism in a way that works for them and there is a sense of acceptance of that, I suppose. Maybe it’s what we see in Italy, that despite people having questions and concerns about it, no one seems to really want to change it. So, in the end, countries and society are always the reflection of the desires and culture of their citizens.

So, what’s a true scandal?

A true scandal? Something that breaks the rules of the society, that challenges how things should be done and in the way it’s subsequently handled, makes that worse. So, it’s both the original situation, the current one, the way it’s handled or not to apologize afterwards, which is why although they describe these scandals most sexual scandals are really scandals, unless the way it’s handled means that someone who is powerless  has been put in an impossible position, is blackmailed or something like that. So I think it’s the scale of the rule breaking the characteristic for me.

In media society, how much is the desire of gossip (constantly present in the history) morbid and how much is it good for a democracy?

Most of that gossip kind news itself I don’t think it’s scandal, it’s just gossip, things you want to know about. So, overall, as I said last night, I believe in the openness, transparency, in the internet providing more information, so how do you say: “well, if that means that there is more information about people’s private life and more gossip, isn’t that a good thing?” I think there is a strong difference: there are things that are private but that are necessary to people to know and that’s not openness, that’s for the benefit of society, generally. It’s a very difficult line to draw though, because they can’t be hidden when private behavior is relevant in terms of perception of someone, their ability to be a leader, not necessarily a political leader: the manager of a football club or something like that, if he behaves poorly, or treats his wife bad, things like that, they might be relevant, but in most cases I think, the large bulk of the gossip based stories
that are in the British press, the BBC doesn’t comment them, it ignores them, it says: “that’s not of sufficient importance to be reported”. So I think you need to have strong rules around openness and transparency and how organization works and for people in leadership position in this organization, professional relations based on openness and probably for certain types of roles, an expectation of some level of scrutiny of their private behavior. That might be different between some societies: they think it’s not relevant, I say it is relevant. The power of the press doesn’t justify the intrusion into people’s life: now, if the celebrities want to tell people about it, because they know
it’s interesting to the public and they want to disclose it, that’s fine, that’s how they look out, but in terms of whether the press should use any invasive techniques or invade people’s privacy if there isn’t an important reason in terms of public reputation in those of leadership, then I think it’s probably not the right thing to have.

So, do you think that Berlusconi’s last scandals, for instance the fact that women can enter the institutional buildings without controls, do you think it’s important to know about it or is it an intrusion?

I would say, that’s not an intrusion. That’s an important question, the security issue. I also think that some of the business relationships, who was paying for these activities, it’s very important as well, because it shows that if it was something that wasn’t traded, it is part of favors that have been given, because someone is paying to the party, that kind of things, that’s very relevant. I don’t think the fact he has got a number of sexual relationships is relevant……. I don’t think the fact he has got a number of sexual relationships is relevant in itself, but the atmosphere that there is around it. And I think probably in the Uk that level of sexual activity of the prime minister on the lines will probably mean that there is a public interest justification of the reporting of it, just simply because people would think that the prime minister would spend so much of his time involved in inappropriate personal behavior. It’s something seen in different ways from different societies. So, in relation to Berlusconi, I think the question around is how is it organized and how is it paid for the security issue.

Some paparazzi made pictures, with a very wide zoom, about Berlusconi and his girls also inside non institutional buildings…is it an intrusion of the privacy?

It’s the house, it’s not relevant to the security thing. I think probably he shouldn’t because they need to be part of it. I don’t think we would use those picture to report the story if they would be available to us.

So, do you think that, like in this situation,  in Italy often the line
is moved more to the gossip than to the very relevant questions?

I don’t. I mean, I can see when a story get to a certain stage, when the prime minister’s behavior and his reputation has become a reputational issue as a whole: in that situation some of those lines you have drawn about personal privacy being protected might start to break down, simply because the extent which is the personal behavior has become a matter of national importance. In that kind of situation, you cannot say that there is an absolute rule: you know one should have had a picture of women and himself showed with their consent. You can say that, it’s an easy and clear rule, but there are also circumstances where you can say no, it’s not right. I don’t know enough about to be able to give a clear view.

We began talking about rules, we now finish with exceptions. Welcome to Italy, Mr Horrocks.


One thought on “Peter Horrocks: “In NoTW case, the BBC should probably have done something more”

  1. Pingback: Politica, media, scandali: parla Peter Horrocks « Sguardi e prospettive


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