Profile: Ian Hargreaves, BAA

Ian Hargreaves has no regrets about leaving journalism for top BAA PR role

As a highly-respected professor of journalism and senior journalist with The Independent, the BBC, FT and The New Statesman, Ian Hargreaves raised eyebrows when he switched sides to lead comms at the privatised British Airports Authority earlier this year.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the resurrection of the most senior comms role at BAA - it had been mothballed since Des Wilson's departure two years ago - coincides with the debate over the expansion of the UK's airport capacity.

The role of PR at BAA, Hargreaves says, could not be more vital: 'There's a classic cliche about public relations and public affairs that they are an optional extra, but that can't be the case here, as the company is engaged at the front edge of issues of public interest, environmental concern and public service, but is also a plc and has to meet the demands of shareholders. It's a tough balancing act,'

He calls the privatisation of BAA as 'a great thing'. It is, I suggest, a little surprising to hear a former editor of The New Statesman and member of Greenpeace and left-leaning think tank Demos expound such views on privatisation.

Not so, Hargreaves argues: 'My stance is rather pragmatic. I was very opposed to the privatisation of the railway industry as I thought it would be catastrophic, and it was. I wasn't among those in the 1980s who thought we should privatise public services and then not regulate them. Balancing efficient regulation of private sector companies with the discipline of the market is a very good mix if you get it right.'

His arguments are matched by recurring mentions of 'integrity' during our conversation, and are a hallmark, perhaps, of his extra-curricular activities: while he is contracted to devote 75 per cent of his time to BAA, he remains a professor of journalism at Cardiff University and has a place on the board of OFCOM, the embryonic communications watchdog.

Other efforts include his latest book, Journalism: Truth or Dare?, in which Hargreaves remarks that senior PR staff are better paid and enjoy better resources than journalists, prompting the inevitable query as to how he has enjoyed the switch to PR. 'It compares very favourably. I've absolutely loved all the jobs I've done, apart from being a down-table sub at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford,' he says.

'The intellectual and management challenges (in PR) are as great as when editing a newspaper. There are political, environmental, technical and social issues that need to be understood to contribute in a company like BAA, and they're complex but engaging.'

But what of having to serve a corporate master rather than the journalistic ideal of the truth? Again, his argument is solid: 'I've often told my students that in journalism, you're a subject of your own conscience and you shouldn't do things you think are wrong. If the only right thing is to challenge your editor then you should, and exactly the same is true in a corporation.

'If I felt - and there is no suggestion that this is the case - I was being asked to tell lies I wouldn't do it. It follows from that that you have to be careful who you work for. A lot of journalism and a lot of business is twisted, and I've come across a lot of both in my life. BAA has integrity,' he states.

Once again, the question of integrity arises. Royal Opera House chief executive Tony Hall, who succeeded Hargreaves as director of news at the BBC, casts some light on Hargreaves's decision to move to BAA: 'I'm never surprised by anything about Ian. He was employed to do a very special job at BAA - to be their conscience, to be the grit in the oyster.

'Was I surprised at him moving into PR? Yes. Was I surprised when I heard the role he was going into? Not at all. He's a person of enormous integrity.

He thinks things through and is not afraid to be alone in a crowd,' Hall adds.

Hargreaves himself admits to having no qualms about the move: 'I don't feel like a traitor, but I understand where the response comes from. I've always found it comical that journalists pretend to despise and see no usefulness in PR people - this has always seemed to me a monumental piece of bollocks. A good journalist should be able to work the front door sources as well as the back door sources.'

First impressions are that four months into the job, Hargreaves has adapted to the task with ease. Yet, in spite of his integrity and intellectual prowess, a keen wit is evident, perhaps best illustrated by an example from Hall of an Anglo-French colloquium earlier this year, at which Hargreaves concluded a session with 'an Ali G-style rap'. This would be a surprising leap for many senior corporate figures, but not, one suspects, for this one.

HIGHLIGHTS

1994: Editor, The Independent

1996: Editor, The New Statesman

1999: Professor of journalism, Cardiff University

2001: Group director of corporate and public affairs, BAA

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