Cardiff Connect, Examined Life

Examined Life – Guto Harri (PgDip 1988)

Examined Life

Guto Harri is a writer, broadcaster and strategic communications consultant.

I grew up in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital – the son of a writer and a shrink. It made me curious, counter-intuitive and appreciative of the power of words. I set my sights on journalism as a student at Oxford and with only two universities offering post-graduate courses in the subject, returning to my home town seemed an obvious choice.

The teachers were brutal, contrasting undergrad essays with the concept of “copy” that would sell. It was a reality check for many of us who may have thought we were sitting pretty. And during the year it dawned on all of us that friends and colleagues would become competitors for limited opportunities and jobs. In that sense, Cardiff was a great transition into the world of work and a highly competitive field.

Journalism, at its best, is being in the most interesting place at the most interesting time with the most interesting people. A journalist’s job is to convey what is happening to as large an audience as possible; it’s a fantastic profession and I’ve loved it.

Welsh was my mother tongue, the language I dreamt in, and in which I could express myself most clearly. So Welsh-language media was an obvious place to start my career. Making the move to what is, arguably, the most respected news organisation in the whole world, the BBC, was initially scary to contemplate. But, having got in there and got on with it, I enjoyed every second.

For the sheer joy of the job, being based in Rome was unbeatable. Berlusconi and the Pope, mafia, food, fashion, sunken Roman treasures and Arnie Schwarzenegger’s shoes – there was never a dull moment. Arguably, however, my career “high” came right at the start: being sent to Saudi-Arabia at 23 years of age for the first Gulf War. That was an unbelievably lucky start.

Political journalism was an obvious next step. But after more than a decade I realised that there’s a door and the decisions are taken on one side of the door and journalists are on the other. I wanted to be in the room. The straightjacket of impartiality was another issue. It is entirely appropriate for broadcasters but there’s a time when some of us want to take sides. For me, the second Gulf War was one that I thought was a catastrophic misjudgement, immoral, and possibly illegal. It clarified for me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on the fence. A move into politics and communications was a logical next step.

On day two in a PR agency I was sent to South Africa where Morgan Tsvangirai was in a safe-house. Robert Mugabe was refusing to step down after losing the Zimbabwe election to him. Suddenly I was in the room and thinking this was an interesting story but realising I wasn’t there to report it, I was there to advise.

When Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London I became one of his right hand people, helping him to run London and helping take decisions as well as communicating them. The brief was vast, the pressure huge and I was in charge of his entire outward facing communications. It was the hardest job I have ever done and hopefully will ever do but it was also one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling.

It’s no secret that Boris and I took very different views of Brexit and I’m still surprised, disappointed and arguably distraught that he led the Leave campaign. Leaving is a catastrophic act of self-harm for the UK, and for Wales it’s practically suicidal.

After the phone hacking scandal, News International was probably the most despised company in the UK. So, starting as their Director of Communications was a bit of a shock to the system. The company was essentially on fire and most people were running for cover. The journalists who worked there did a fantastic job, day in day out, making sense of the world; challenging the rich and the powerful; and keeping the rest of us well-informed and entertained. I’m very proud of the part that I played in allowing those people to be journalists again and not be seen as phone hackers and corrupters of public life.

The temptation to be back in broadcasting is a little bit like having sworn you’re never going to be a concert pianist again: it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t occasionally go to the piano and play it. Welsh politics needs greater scrutiny and Welsh journalism needs to be sharpened a little bit and if I can play a small role in that, then I’ll be very pleased.

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