BBC’s Peter Horrocks: ‘It’s not that easy to get advertising in Somalia’

Asad Cabdullahi MataanBy Asad Cabdullahi Mataan

Peter Horrocks is almost certainly the only BBC executive to have broken into song on a Ghanaian TV chatshow. The man in charge of the World Service had been invited onto “Ghana’s equivalent of Jonathan Ross” when a member of his team let slip his penchant for music ranging from Jersey Boys tunes to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. “They said, will you sing something, and the band started to strike up,” remembers Horrocks. “I hadn’t prepared so I made something up, a spontaneous rappy kind of rhyme about being in Ghana.”

From tomorrow, the World Service will be singing a different tune when the BBC takes on responsibility for funding the global broadcaster, which was previously bankrolled by the Foreign Office – a switch born out of the controversial licence fee settlement in 2010 when it was handed a number of new financial burdens including the World Service. It is not the only revolution being overseen by Horrocks, the 54-year-old former editor of Newsnight and Panorama, as his organisation is about to become the first BBC licence fee-funded operation to take advertising and sponsorship. Both changes have proved contentious.


Former World Service managing director John Tusa dubbed it a “facile” rush to commercialism, while the National Union of Journalists said it was “extremely dangerous and foolish”. MPs on the Commons foreign affairs committee said they “strongly opposed” wider commercialisation of the World Service. Horrocks counters by saying the overseas audience is more relaxed about advertising than the UK audience, and adds that the BBC World News TV channel, which he also oversees as director of the BBC World Service Group, has taken advertising for more than 20 years without any loss in credibility.

Extra commercial revenue is “one of the answers” as the BBC seeks to realise director general Tony Hall’s ambition of a global reach of 500 million people by 2022, he argues. The BBC’s international news services now have a record worldwide reach of 256 million (192 million via the World Service in its various forms, including digital). Horrocks describes commercial income as a “top-up” accounting for 2.5% (around £7m) of the World Service’s £245m budget. But under current plans it could go as high as 10%, and with downward pressure on the licence fee, will there inevitably be the expectation it does more? “Potentially,” he says. “Even it gets to 4% or 5% I think we will be doing quite well. It’s not that easy to get advertising in Somalia.”

Selling adverts in Russia, where audience numbers have soared during the crisis in Ukraine, is more straightforward. “We’re not doing stories because advertisers tell us to,” he says. “We’re simply doing journalism the BBC believes in and also selling advertising to help support a stronger editorial operation. What could be wrong with that?” Horrocks wants his journalists to “think about making sure their content and products are really attractive [so] people want to advertise alongside it”. He insists: “It’s not about making content to the specifications of advertisers. Editorial values absolutely come first.”

The switch from government to licence fee funding prompted fears that if the BBC faces further downward pressure on budgets – surely inevitable – it will be the World Service that suffers rather than a domestic channel such as BBC2. “Of course there may be people who make those arguments,” concedes Horrocks. But he argues that licence fee payers directly benefit from the World Service’s role as an ambassador for the UK and from its journalists who increasingly contribute to the BBC’s domestic output. Plus, it has nearly 2 million listeners in the UK every week (including its overnight broadcasts on Radio 4).

He also sees incorporating the World Service as making the case for the licence fee stronger. “The BBC flies the flag for British content and British knowledge. Which other British content organisation has penetration in Europe or Asia or the US? Everything else is American. When the World Service is part of the BBC offer, I think it will make people stop and think, hang on, if you want to make the BBC smaller because of a political point of view or a competitor’s point of view, you are also going to damage Britain’s global role. Think twice about doing that.”

Unlike his predecessor, Horrocks does not have a place on the BBC’s management board, as the World Service is represented at the corporation’s highest echelons by director of news and current affairs, former Times editor James Harding (who beat Horrocks to the top job last year). MPs were appalled, suggesting a “steady erosion” of the global broadcaster’s influence within the BBC. Does Horrocks think he should be on the board? Asked three times, he each time declines to say (so I presume yes).

A BBC lifer, Horrocks was previously its head of TV news and set up its multimedia operation, now the centrepiece of New Broadcasting House. He also oversaw Panorama’s Jimmy Savile investigation (and, coincidentally, its Hutton programme a decade earlier). It caused huge embarrassment for senior BBC management including Horrocks’s then boss, Helen Boaden, by examining why Newsnight dropped its Savile report.

Horrocks and Boaden, now director of BBC radio, are said not to get along. “I don’t want to talk about individuals, it’s not appropriate,” says Horrocks. He told the Pollard inquiry that he felt “embarrassed” that the Newsnight report did not air. “I said to the [Panorama] team in both the Hutton and Savile case, we just do our job, we look into it and tell it as it is without fear or favour,” he says. “I pulled things out of the [Savile] programme that I felt went too far in terms of criticism of the BBC because they weren’t substantiated. But where we had criticisms that were evidenced, we put those in.”

Post-crisis, he thinks Newsnight, under newish editor Ian Katz, the former Guardian deputy editor, has got “real brio. It sometimes falls flat on its face, that’s fine. There are some daft things in there but some incredibly intellectually breathtaking things as well. He is breaking stories and getting noticed, just exactly the kind of Newsnight I tried to lead.”

Colleagues characterise Horrocks as “intense, deadly serious, absolute quality, a proper journalist” and “one of the awkward squad … he never really played the BBC game”. Horrocks responds: “I don’t go looking for arguments either.” After government cuts to the World Service’s budget three years ago which cost 550 jobs, Horrocks will reverse that tide this year with £8m of investment helping to create 130 roles, many in TV and digital including a global version of Radio 1’s Newsbeat. The launch of a new North Korea service is “still under consideration”, with Horrocks “open-minded” but cautious about the practical issues surrounding reception, among others. A further £15m of savings will be needed in the following two years, likely to cost around 100 jobs and further cuts in shortwave transmissions. Its current annual spend of £245m is guaranteed until the end of the licence fee period but Horrocks wants it to go up with inflation.

The prospect of the decriminalisation of the licence fee, given cross party support by MPs last week, could mean further financial pressure. “We can all understand why the strength of political concern has grown so quickly about people being sent to jail [for non-payment, up to 70 people a year],” says Horrocks. “Small numbers but still significant for not paying for a cultural product, that’s a mismatch we can all understand. It’s interesting that parliament, having expressed that concern, said it needs to be thought about really carefully.” The BBC has said any more could cost it up to £200m a year.

Question Time presenter David Dimbleby and Horrocks’s former colleague Roger Mosey have both suggested the corporation should be cut back. “Those are their views,” says Horrocks. “When I leave the BBC, whenever that might be, I intend to be the sort of person who will be supporting the BBC.”

In an internal BBC publication sketching what BBC News might look like 20 years hence, Horrocks suggested the possibility of reporters “filing to audiences via brainwaves”. If he’s not 100% serious, neither is it a joke. “The technology for that obviously isn’t quite here yet, but you can control prosthetic limbs through brainwaves,” he reasons. “I think it will be possible for thoughts to be published or transmitted by brainwaves. What hasn’t happened, and is probably still a long way off, is people being able to receive. I characterise this as Robert Peston or Nick Robinson in your head, and not everyone felt completely comfortable with that idea.”