Peter Bale interview

By Conrad Heine In Commentary

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Illustration Jasper Berlin

When I quote to Peter Bale his CV description of himself as an “agent for change”, he is mortified. “Oh god, did I say that? I usually like to puncture that kind of bollocks.” But in fact, he has to agree. “I am not happy to just keep to the status quo, to sit around polishing the crown jewels. All organisations need to be dynamic and changing.”

Change has been the byword throughout Bale’s low-key but high-flying three-decade media career. In August he started in a newly created role announced in April by CNN, in which he is leading the Atlanta-based cable operator’s digital services outside the US. It is the culmination of a career path along which the 48-year-old has ticked off senior positions at Reuters, the Financial Times group, News Inter­national and MSN.

Originally from the Auckland suburb of One Tree Hill, Bale has called London home since 1989. This year, the traditional Northern Hemisphere summer slow-news season has been punctuated by the phone-hacking scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and London’s “BlackBerry riots”. He fulminates over both. An avowed tweeter, he condemns the post-riot call by some British politicians and media for curbs on social-networking sites. “Absolutely ridiculous and a crazy contradiction to support for their role in the Arab Spring.”

As for Hackgate, he seems as surprised as anyone at the extent to which the scandal has permeated power elites in Britain. Once he walked Wapping’s corridors himself, on first-name terms with Murdoch. He still names Les Hinton – who in July stepped down as CEO of Murdoch-owned Dow Jones over hacking on his watch at News International – as a reference on his CV.

The practices plaguing News International are now known to have stretched back over time. Did he have any inkling? He declares that, unlike such tabloids as the Sun and News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times answer to an advisory board, theoretically minimising Murdochian control. “It is a smokescreen. But it is an important theoretical difference between those papers and the tabloids.”

He is more direct on why the troubles may have arisen, with News International’s nimble virtues perhaps contributing to its strife. “The culture of the place is very masculine, very lean, stripped to the essentials. There is tremendous pressure to sustain circulation above theoretical targets. That pressure leads to all sorts of compromises.”

Compromises that perhaps produced results. In the wake of News of the World’s closure in July, the Economist made a pithy point. “The scandal has been a triumph for the bit of the industry that makes no money: the Guardian [which has led the way in revealing the hacking] recently announced annual cash losses of £33 million [$53 million] and is about to sack lots of staff. It has been a disaster for the bit that makes money. Before Murdoch’s News Corporation euthanised News of the World for being overly vile, the Sunday tabloid and its daily sister, the Sun, posted decent profits (subsidising two loss-making Murdoch broadsheets, the Times and the Sunday Times, in the process).”

For Bale, that’s a red herring. “The Guardian did not kill News of the World. The people who did for it were James [Murdoch] and Rebekah [Brooks]. It was not the publication that was the problem but the methods.”

In terms of methods, journalists must often walk a fine line. Mostly, Bale mourns the lost opportunities wrapped up in the scandal. “It is a great pity the stories we are talking about here are not ‘why did we go into Iraq?’, or about the Pakistani cricket gambling scandal. Think of the resources they had. Chasing Hugh Grant is not campaigning journalism. These were not important stories.”

He worries about the potential for harm to British media freedom – already hit by superinjunctions – in the affair’s wake. “It is time for something approaching first-amendment protection for freedom of speech in the UK. The trouble is, I don’t think it will come in this climate; the opposite will come. The Government can legislate for privacy, but press control is something Parliament cannot legislate for other than opening it up. The climate has gone away from opening it up, and that will be very seriously damaging.”

Bale (along with his partner, former Auckland Star journalist and global company news editor for Reuters Mary-Ellen Barker, and their 18-year-old daughter, Faith, who is Cambridge-bound, to his obvious pride) divides his non-working time between Primrose Hill, north London haunt of the Guardian-reading chattering classes, and his “modest” house in a Spanish pueblo blanco, near Cadiz. “That’s my turangawaewae.” We are a long way from 1979, when Bale’s first stop after Penrose High was the Western Leader. “Interviewing Barry Crump and Tim Shadbolt were highlights.” After Bale joined the Wairarapa Times-Age in 1981, where Ben Couch – Muldoon’s pro-Springbok-tour police and Maori affairs minister – was the local MP, his reporting caught attention. A three-year political beat at Wellington’s Evening Post followed in the febrile Muldoon-to-Lange years.

Then came a position with Reuters in Sydney in 1985. “In New Zealand of that era most of the foreign coverage had a Reuters slug on it. I had a lot of latent regard for Reuters and what it stood for.”

Over his 15 years at Reuters, in Sydney, Melbourne, London for the collapsing Thatcher-Major years, and Bucharest in Romania for two years that took in the Bosnian War, regard for the Reuters principles grew. “No one at Reuters asked me to do a story I didn’t feel good about. Sometimes the lack of opinion was frustrating. But I bought into the Reuters ethos, the impartiality, the need to bear witness.”

From London he made forays to the 1991 Gulf War and South Africa’s first multinational elections, from Bucharest to the slaughter in Bosnia. “I sometimes feel like Zelig, accidentally in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to do it, lucky it worked out and lucky to emerge unscathed.” But by 1996, his energy was diminishing. “I was a good observer and a good reporter, but I’m not [BBC foreign correspondent] John Simpson.” He found himself wanting to captain the ship rather than crew it, especially with the dawn of the new media age. Moving from Bucharest to editorial management at headquarters, Bale – already primed by the Reuters traditions of immediacy and response to client demand – was a convert.

“I love the opportunity to direct the content, shape a product and lead it journalistically and to make it successful commercially. Underneath that is a design ethic – how users engage with the content.” Reuters was hardly alone in paying attention. The pink pages of the Financial Times were going big, and the newspaper was spending big online, and in 2000 Bale took up a position as managing editor of FTMarketWatch.com, an investor-oriented joint venture between the FT and CBSMarketWatch. On his staff was Bernard Hickey, now a leading New Zealand financial journalist and editor of interest.co.nz. “We were a ginger group, there to stir things up. It was fun but very difficult.”

Difficult indeed, as the challenges of the new medium were revealed. With their online operations losing big, the FT establishment turned on the upstart, despite its host of awards. Bale was forced to sack a lot of staff. “I did not enjoy it. It’s like strangling your own puppy.” He picked himself up, striking out as a consultant, before becoming editorial director for Times Online in 2004.

Guiding the most venerable of British media brands into the new world made for heady years, in the context of an organisation with an appetite, indeed notorious reputation, for forcing radical change. “That was one of the most exciting periods of my career, working with Rupert, Les and Robert Thomson. That company’s ability to move with the speed of a start-up, with no bureaucracy, was incredible.”

Bale saw site traffic grow from 1.5 million to 8.3 million unique users on his watch, which should have pleased his flinty masters. However, after two-and-a-half years, he left. “I was happy for virtually all the time I was there. But there was a lot of politics between the Times and the Sunday Times about control of the web future for them both. The Sunday Times editor wanted his own website, which he now has, and it became very difficult for me to sustain that dichotomy.”

Bale moved to controlling editorial for MSN UK. With the Microsoft-run portal known more for Hotmail accounts and entertainment news than breaking big stories, it was a radical shift. But its scale – “the biggest UK editorial site you don’t use”, with nine billion page views that year, reported the Guardian in 2008 – made for tempting potential.

And a need to eat his words, for at Times Online he had specifically advised against doing deals with portals like Yahoo! and MSN. “Search engines I was enthusiastic about, but portals, no. I believed I’d seen them build up their reputations on the back of others, using the content of Reuters and the like. I had to change my tune quite dramatically.” Bale took the learning opportunity. “I am a great believer in that meshing of technology and publishing. Microsoft’s technological reach is enormous. And I got a lot of support in building the journalism at the site from six to 46 journalists, and support for journalism of all sorts – entertainment, cars, money.

“I can’t say we built the most fantastic news site. But it reached a lot of people, and I learnt a lot about entertainment – working out that nexus between light entertainment and hard-news content.” Although more comfortable with the latter, he embraced the former, pushing projects such as “Kirill”, a ground-breaking online science-fiction series that won a Webby award. Five years later, he is back in old territory. But he stresses the continuum between roles. “It’s a move back to a harder-nosed media job. But it is about the coalescence between content and advertising, the presentation layer, mobile, all the business decisions you need to make to create a successful product.”

Although it’s early days, change is on his mind. “In the US, CNN is in the centre politically, which is a good place to be. But it is not that strong outside the US. It is known for breaking news, but for digital users the real desire is to know what is next.” Curation, says the inveterate tweeter, is the key, citing CNN’s iReport, which sees readers – “iReporters” – posting stories from around the world, in an open forum, and in particular its reporting on this year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which put seismologists and other experts alongside ordinary citizens, with the journalists bringing it together rather than declaiming from on high. “That had much more impact than traditional TV. There is huge potential there. We need to go deep on that.”

Surveying the future of the news industry recently, the Economist spoke of “the return to the coffee house” – how the internet, and its spinoffs: smartphones, the iPad, social networks, whatever – have “taken the news industry back to the conversational culture of the era before mass media”. Bale is a believer, lauding the likes of the epic “liquefaction in a wheelbarrow” video that did the rounds after Christchurch’s earthquake, and says the mainstream media needs to get on board with such participatory journalism. “We are all competing for attention to break viewers out of habits. The trick is to stay true to your original readers while reaching new people.”

Bale doesn’t deny the trickiness of this task, let alone making it financially sustainable. But he questions players pulling their heads in, as epitomised by the move by his former employer, Times Online, behind a blanket pay wall, with no tasters, teasers or indirect pathways. “They have closed themselves off from those curating the conversation and made themselves irrelevant.” How to do it then? He prefers the approach of the New York Times, which offers non-subscribers a certain number of free articles before they hit a pay barrier, and shared content is free. But it is early days. “No one has the right recipe yet. We are all clutching at components.”

He sees how the providers approach the readers – a term he prefers, even in the digital age – as vital. Most of the papers in Britain, he argues, “are paying the price for taking their readers for granted. It has all been about the news-stand, about shouty headlines above the fold. What they need is a proper relationship with their readers.” Vital to this is getting in touch with the internet’s promiscuous and sharing nature. Newspapers need to “engage with their readers, have a proper conversation with them”. But so often they don’t. “Look at the letters page in the Sunday Times. It is the size of a postage stamp. There’s no dialogue.”

But surely, scrolling through the comments adorning the underside of the average online newspaper article he has at times found himself losing the will to live? Again he refers to the Japanese earthquake coverage, noting what he thought was an innovative Reuters blog: “It wasn’t just a list of comments. It was all about the curation. How to respond to the expert opinion. That is key.” The role of the journalist, he believes, is to “be an assembler of facts”, with a visible web-browser history as important as a story.

Integral to curation is a transparent approach to corrections and clarifications: transparency the new impartiality. As with the reporting of the Norwegian massacre and the rush to blame Islamist terrorism before the facts of rightist extremism emerged. “Whoever brought that line in first would have been the person to follow the next day.” If a journalist is wrong, admit it quickly. “The reader will tolerate you being wrong as long as you are transparent. We are going to be taken down by social media anyway. So best to be ahead of the game.”

Bale lives his beliefs. “My whole appetite for content has moved to the immediate. Twitter is my primary means for staying in touch. I gravitate to the people who either share beautifully or make the interesting pithy comment to add to something.” Otherwise, he is drawn to the digested reads offered by the Economist and the New Yorker. “The only things I read cover to cover every week.” He also finds time to keep up with events in New Zealand, although not as much as he’d like.

The family visit New Zealand frequently, mostly gravitating to Orere Point on the Firth of Thames, but he confesses he is unlikely to return permanently. “It was a big break for me when I made the decision to become a foreign correspondent rather than to report on my own country.”

Still, that could change. In the meantime, he has plenty to get on with at CNN. As he gets to grips with that, the journalist has perhaps been superseded by the change agent, who sees “a Venn diagram of the people who are consuming CNN on television and the web. Where it joins are the people you must love the most; you must cherish that linkage from the parent product.

“Then you have to think about how you bring more people inside that join, to hopefully create a virtuous circle, where they become consumers of the TV product and therefore monetisable across the whole range of products. It is about cherishing your core readership, reaching out to the new ones, and changing your product over time to be more compelling for both groups.”

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