Richard Sambrook is sitting in his office on the first floor of Bush House, television blaring. It’s 6th November, the day after the US election result has been declared and the BBC’s World News channel is going into overdrive, broadcasting minute by minute reports of President-elect Barack Obama’s every move – or so it seems.
This is the sort of character-filled room that you imagine should be featured in The Observer magazine’s My Space series. Cartoon caricatures mix with modern art on the walls. A large comfy maroon sofa sprawls at one end of the office, a relatively-contained network of high tech communications (plasma screen, laptop, TV monitor, fax) at the other.
Richard himself seems pretty relaxed, given that the last few days must have been hectic. As Director of the BBC’s Global News division, Richard is in charge of all the BBC’s international news services, across radio, television and digital media. Guiding and monitoring the US presidential election coverage in 32 different languages can’t be easy.
Before we meet, I check Richard’s blog to see how things have been going. Maybe not surprisingly, there’s been a bit of a lull – the most recent post is 29th October, over a week ago.
Richard readily admits he’s not posting quite as frequently as he was when his first internal blog launched in 2004. Back then, he was the first senior manager at the BBC to do such a thing.
“I’d moved into my new role and I thought it would be an interesting communications tool. The BBC can be very insular and inward-looking. It’s not just about journalism. I wanted to communicate with the new staff. After about three months I was getting 6,000 unique visitors each month. People I didn’t know would stop me and talk to me in the corridor, just because they’d read something of interest on the blog.”
“Part of it was learning about digital media and social media. Blogging is a way of getting to understand the dynamics, how it all works.”
Richard is refreshingly honest about the four things that bothered him at the outset. His editor’s head identified drawbacks from the start:
- Am I going to be taken to task for something I write?
- Am I going to offend a specific constituency or community?
- Is anyone going to be interested?
- Can I do it?
While he found the blog relatively easy to write, he was concerned about the way his audience would react:
“Being a journalist, the actual writing wasn’t a problem. Finding a personal tone was. As well as issues like transparency, honesty and frankness. If you take all the contentious stuff out, will it be interesting?”
So far, the most awkward moment was during a dispute between the BBC and the unions:
“I said the only way through is negotation. And then found out the official BBC position is not to negotiate.”
Hmm. So would he extol the virtues of blogging to all senior managers?
“I wouldn’t say everyone should do it. It only works for some people. You need to get the right mix of informality and openness. Otherwise it won’t work. It’s good to have a very clear purpose, to see if you can open discussion and dialogue that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
“For example, last year I talked about advertising on the BBC World Service website (outside the UK). A small number of staff felt strongly about it and voiced their opinions on the blog – I wouldn’t have found out otherwise.”
When Richard went to his bosses with the idea of setting up a blog, they must have thought they were relatively safe. After all, to use an old cliché, Richard is a BBC man through and through – he joined the organisation in 1980 as a sub-editor in the radio newsroom (after training as journalist with Thomson Regional Newspapers) and worked his way up the ranks, becoming News Editor and head of newsgathering, then Director, BBC News, before moving onto his current role. Plus, they must have hoped Richard’s editorial experience should create some kind of Pavlov’s dog-type reaction if he ever thought about writing anything too close to the edge.
“Initially their attitude [the bosses] was, ‘that’s novel’. But I think they were generally very happy for someone like me to do it.”
In 2006, two years after launching the internal blog, Richard moved his ideas into the public domain with the launch of Sacred Facts on Typepad. The site now averages around 2,000 visitors a month.
“Because I’d already done it inside and they [the bosses] had seen my blog, it was okay. They clearly thought that I, more than anyone, should know the risks.”
Richard was Director, BBC News, in May 2003 when BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ran a report claiming that the British Government had knowingly exaggerated claims over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in a dossier published in 2002. The government’s vehement rebuking of the accusations levied by the report led to a British judicial inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, and eventual resignations of the BBC’s Chairman and Director-General.
“Part of my experience of going through the weapons of mass destruction incident motivated me. If I’d been blogging at that time, it would have been an opportunity to say something, to speak out against the spin – although the corporate line would have been tight.”
I ask him what he thinks about the current storm raging over the BBC – the whole furore around the – some would say cheeky, others offensive – telephone calls made by Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross to actor, Andrew Sachs.
Admittedly entertainment is not Richard’s milieu, and he won’t be drawn, saying, diplomatically: “I’d only want to say something that adds value”.
Sacred Facts has clearly given Richard a great feel for social media. As all of you out there will know, BBC News has an impressive presence across digital media, and Richard is looking for the next big thing to develop.
“The novelty [of social media] has worn off; we’re now in a period of consolidation. 2006 was the year of Facebook. Now, I’m on Twitter more than anything else. But it’s not so much professional. It’s more a back-channel to a group of friends who are interested in the same stuff. Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Seesmic, Threads, 12seconds, Qik – all have a BBC presence. It’s all experimentation, all extending our journalistic reach. We don’t get a huge amount of feedback.”
So, go on – he works hard – make Richard’s day and give him a comment!