Peter Barron could almost pass for a YouTube sensation. As ‘spizz13’, he is featured in a series of videos, blasting out rock numbers from his Fender Telecaster. One film has attracted more than 50,000 views alongside 84 largely complimentary comments. Google’s head of comms and public affairs, it is safe to say, truly understands the power of online media.
Barron’s digital incarnation might surprise those who know him best as the man who steered Newsnight for four years. His move to the ‘dark side’ at Google last September caused a stir. But the 46-year-old says after an 18-year career at the BBC, it was time to put his digital dedication to the test.
‘It seemed natural for me to move into new media,’ says Barron, at Google’s London HQ. ‘I wanted to continue to have the daily event-flow – when you move into BBC management, the danger is you leave behind the excitement of the coalface.’
Thankfully for Barron, his first few months at Google have been anything but dull. The Irishman had barely warmed up his new ergonomic seat before the Google Street View privacy controversy exploded into the public sphere. Before long, Barron was advising his new boss Matt Brittin on a Newsnight engagement.
‘It was a slightly strange experience going back,’ he admits. ‘Newsnight is quite a big challenge – you need to think carefully. But whether it is a politician or a company, it is always better to be candid and open.’
This is a mantra that Barron repeats during the interview, and with good reason. Google is a remarkable, epoch-defining company, but one that invariably elicits frustration among journalists. ‘In the past, Google had a tendency to keep its head down,’ he admits. ‘That is how misconception and mythology arise.’
From his vantage point at Newsnight, Barron has learned this better than most. ‘I was always struck that the companies that were tight-lipped were the ones that came off second best,’ he explains. ‘The person who didn’t was Michael Howard [the former home secretary who famously refused to answer repeated questioning from Jeremy Paxman on the sacking of a prison governor]. His name has actually been mentioned here once or twice.’
It is hard to imagine the soft-spoken Barron knocking any heads together in his pursuit of comms nirvana. Then again, this is a man – says close friend and Endemol CEO Tim Hincks – who ‘was not afraid to get Newsnight embroiled in battles’.
‘He is not always a confrontational person. He is calm and very loved by his teams,’ says Hincks. ‘Newsnight did an eight-minute segment on the Led Zeppelin reunion. If there has ever been a bigger squandering of public funds, I’d like to see it, but it shows how he carries people with him.’
Barron has needed these qualities to deal with a succession of difficult issues at Google – from Street View to privacy to recent reports about the company’s tax arrangements. ‘It has been busy,’ he deadpans, before explaining why Google is receiving more than its fair share of criticism.
‘We’re more than ten years old and popular, so newspapers look for criticism,’ he contends. ‘There is a tendency to be tight-lipped – but we want to get away from that.’
Judging from the Street View controversy, that might be easier said than done. Barron led Google’s response with aplomb, but it is hard to understand why the company was not better prepared.
‘If we had our time again we would explain there are cases where the automated technology hasn’t worked,’ he admits. ‘But the record numbers of people using it shows the publicity did not do us any harm.’
While BBC Television Centre and Google’s eclectic offices are barely five miles apart, the cultural distance should not be underestimated. Barron points out that the two companies probably ‘viewed each other with an air of mutual suspicion’.
Yet, for the man once tipped for the role of BBC2 controller, the shift may not be all that difficult to understand.
‘He has been integral to the wellbeing of one of its crown jewels and it won’t have escaped his notice that the BBC can benefit from people who get commercial experience and come back,’ says Hincks. ‘He could come back in a much stronger position.’
Barron’s interests beyond work, including a media industry rock supergroup featuring Hincks and Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, mean he will face few challenges fitting into the Google culture. Whether he can change its approach to comms remains another matter.
Peter Barron’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Joining the BBC as a trainee. I was working for an English language newspaper in Portugal after university and someone gave me a newspaper cutting about Belfast, where I’m from. On the back of the article was an advertisement for the BBC trainee scheme. I applied and ended up as a trainee on Newsnight.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Do whatever you are asked to do so well that it impresses the person who asked you, even if the task is painfully boring. The next one is bound to be less boring.
Have you had a notable mentor?
At Google, DJ Collins has given me a great introduction to a completely new world. At the BBC, working with Peter Snow was a daily lesson in the huge value of enthusiasm.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Enthusiasm. Google’s recruitment processes are famously painstaking, involving several interviews, but it does mean you get to work with a fantastically talented and motivated group of people.
2008 Head of comms and public affairs, Google UK, Benelux and Ireland
2006-07 Advisory chair, Edinburgh International TV Festival
2004 Editor, Newsnight
2003 Editor, BBC current affairs
2002 Deputy editor, Tonight with Trevor McDonald
1997 Deputy editor, Channel 4 News, ITN
1990 Producer, BBC Newsnight
1988 BBC News trainee
1987 Editor and journalist, Algarve News and Algarve Magazine