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Examined Life – Sir Craig Oliver (PGDip 1992)

25 April 2019

Sir Craig Oliver is former controller of BBC Global and Director of Communications at 10 Downing St, and is now a principal at consulting firm Teneo.

What drew me to Cardiff was its extraordinary reputation. I very much wanted to be a broadcast journalist but I think there were only 15 places on the course. I got in, and the values that were instilled about fairness, impartiality, doing the right thing, fact-checking; that all stood me in incredible stead when I went to employers like the BBC and ITV News.

If you want to be at the centre of journalism then behind the camera is where it’s at. If you’re a reporter, you end up covering a story and that’s what you’re doing. But what if something else is happening? Being behind the scenes allowed me to go on the road, edit programs and make decisions about what stories we were telling.

When I started, somebody told me “you can have a front row seat at history”. One of my first stories was that of Abbie Humphries [an infant kidnapped in 1994], where we got a shot of a big, burly policeman carrying this baby to safety, and it won an RTS Award. I was in Iraq, which was an extraordinary experience. And in the wake of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, we obtained a huge leak revealing that police had been in complete chaos and had led to them shooting the wrong man.

The digital revolution absolutely smashed everything in journalism. I still think people are only beginning to come to terms with the consequences: they tend to overestimate impact early on and underestimate it in the long term. For example, when I was at the BBC they put way too much energy into their 24 hour news station while taking away resources from the mainstream news program. Working on the evening news bulletin, I was saying: “hold on, we’re still getting five million people a night!” I wanted to ensure they put resources where it was most impactful.

Going from journalism into politics is like throwing yourself into the white-water rapids. I was joining a government that was already in process and it was expected that I would know my stuff and be able to deal with it – all whilst having several hundred people whose job it is to make sure you trip up at every turn.

Politics drives a lot of people mad. I worked out quite early on that unless I was quite Zen or mindful about it that would end up happening. You can see it with what’s going on with Brexit; a lot of people are becoming more and more irrational in terms of their reactions to it.

I timed my life to the minute. Having gone to bed very late, I would get up to listen to the 6am news. By 6.01, I was phoning the BBC trying to get them to change their story because those morning bulletins reach 24 million people. I would then spend time going through newspapers, blogs, Twitter, and gathering my team at Downing Street at 8am before meeting the Prime Minister at 8.30am and on from there.

“The digital revolution absolutely smashed everything in journalism. I still think people are only beginning to come to terms with the consequences”

There were extraordinary moments. I once found myself at the White House waiting to be introduced to Barack Obama and somebody tapped me on the shoulders say hello – it was George Clooney. Then, I would be in Myanmar talking to the generals who are the dictators and trying to have a sensible conversation with these people who were seen as murderers.

The coalition government proved that two parties could work together. We had stable government, and I’m proud of lots of what we did. I think that the Scottish referendum was obviously a hugely difficult thing, and going on to win the 2015 general election when nobody thought we would was a major achievement.

People think that David Cameron woke up one morning and said “I’m going to call a referendum” [on Europe]. Actually, peoplewere increasingly worried that the EU was not listening to them. UKIP was doing well in marginal Conservative seats – and as the Tories were the major political force in the land, it was an issue that needed to be resolved. You had to be nearly 62 to have voted in the last referendum on Europe, so these things came together.

At 10pm on 23 June 2016, all the votes had been cast. You couldn’t find a single person who thought Leave had won. Nigel Farage was conceding. Then the results started to come in in the northeast of England and it became clear that we hadn’t performed nearly as well as we should have. It felt like walking across a path to safety only for it to crumble beneath you.

At 4am I found David Cameron in his study. Wetalked the day before about what would happen if we lost and whether or not he’d have to resign – I had been very strongly of the opinion that he should. After the discussion about what he was going to say he went to walk off and all I could do, in a slightly English way, was to give him a hug and then go and get some air. It was an incredibly low moment.

For 40 years, politicians on both sides had traded in slagging off Europe. Tony Blair did it when it suited him, Gordon Brown did it, and David Cameron certainly did it at times. Nick Clegg said that there should be a referendum. We never created that emotional ballast – so if I could change anything I would invent a time machine, go back and force mainstream politicians to make the case for something they thought was profoundly important.

When you’re in a position of leadership, it can be very lonely.  A prime minister is like the ultimate CEO and I think that’s the reason Teneo were interested in working with me. We advise CEOs who face problems that are often very complex and nuanced and have no right answers so my job is to try to help find a path through.

I’ll quote a book called The Leopard: “if we want everything to stay the same everything is going to have to change”. Often people are in positions where they’re very successful but suddenly the world is changing around them. We’re seeing that over and over again at the moment.