Mary Hockaday: Top World Service boss discusses station’s role – and her own early ‘90s Prague stint

Mary Hockaday, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

As controller of BBC World Service English, Mary Hockaday is one of the most senior executives at the globe’s biggest radio station. When she was in Prague last week for a recording of the debate show World Questions, I asked Hockaday about various aspects of the World Service’s role and today’s media landscape. But the conversation began with her years here in the Czech capital in the early 1990s, when she was the BBC’s correspondent in the city.

Mary Hockaday,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I was young. I was restless. I had been here before and I was really taken with Prague the city and the people I met.

“So when the Berlin Wall came down and there were all the changes, it just seemed to me an extraordinary opportunity as a journalist to come and report on what was going on.

“I reported for the BBC but also for the Independent newspaper and had a really fascinating time.

“There was an incredible atmosphere then – a time of great change, of great hope.

“And I’ve been thinking back actually as I’ve been here on this visit about what were the big stories, what was I reporting on.

“I remember a sequence of visits from George Bush, the Pope and the Rolling Stones – and I think you may be able to guess which got the biggest audience.

“But then the serious stories – there was a lot about forging democracy, looking to Europe, restitution, lustrace, privatisation. These were some of the big issues of the time.

“Then later, towards the end of my time here, the debate about Czechoslovakia and in the end the velvet separation, the velvet divorce.”

What kind of people did you get to meet here? For example, did you ever interview Havel?

“I did. I certainly did, yes, a number of times. And also quite frequently Jiří Dientsbier, the foreign minister. But also Václav Klaus – the full range of the political spectrum.

“When the Berlin Wall came down it just seemed to me an extraordinary opportunity as a journalist to come and report on what was going on.”

“I was always interested, too, in talking to ordinary Czechs about their life, their history, the amazing stories and difficult times that people had been through. And then the sense of change and opportunity.

“But also people in business and the arts and so on. But certainly plenty of the politicians.”

People often talk about the 1990s here with great nostalgia, as a super exciting time when anything went. Apart from the work side of things, what are your strongest memories of your life in Prague?

“I had great friends, actually. I made great friends.

“It was a feature still that many people had a passion for the countryside and a passion to get out of Prague at the weekends and explore the woods and the hills and the mountains.

“And I remember being very struck by the system of paths and the markings of paths, because it seemed to me vastly superior to what we had in Britain, where you had to have a map and a compass half the time.

“I think the most challenging thing I did [laughs] was a friend took me cross-country skiing.

“I have to say that’s the only skiing I’ve ever done in my life and my arms felt like they were going to fall off. But it was fun.”

I presume it was when you were here that you began researching your book about Milena Jesenská [Kafka, Love and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenska], who I guess is best known as being Kafka’s romantic partner. What was it drew you to her story?

“That was really interesting. There was a small exhibition about her and it was a time when her story, like many stories, was beginning to be told again.

“I actually was particularly interested in her as a journalist. Obviously the relationship with Kafka people knew about, but it seemed to me there was more to her than that.

Photo: Overlook Books
“I first proposed to my publisher that I do an anthology of her writing, as a way of understanding Czechoslovakia between the wars and the history of that time.

“But the publisher said, No, no, you must tell the whole story, you must do a biography.

“So with some trepidation I set out and did that. And it was an absolute privilege, actually, to do the research.

“I spent a lot of time in the newspaper library, looking at all the old papers. But also talking to people who had some link with her, who were very generous in sharing their thoughts and memories.

“She was a remarkable woman and her story in and of itself, as a woman of her time, is extraordinary.

“But her writing is a window on Czechoslovakia and Central Europe at that time, that history between the wars.

“She, of course, tragically was arrested in the end by the Germans and ended up in Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she died.

“So her story does reveal a great deal about those times.”

If we could move to the present, you're now the controller of BBC World Service English. Controller sounds like a very powerful job – what exactly do you do?

“Well, it is a slightly old-fashioned term, isn't it? In essence it means I'm the director of BBC World Service English, which means the radio service, but also the digital content.”

I was reading that since you took the post of controller in 2014 the World Service has extended its reach from 40 million people a week to almost double that number. Where is the World Service finding new listeners, or a new audience?

“It's really interesting and I think it gives the lie to anybody who says that radio or audio as a medium is sort of dying.

“It really isn't. I think there's a resurgence. Here we are talking. It's so simple. It's a very simple medium and you can convey so much information, but also connection between people.

“Then digital platforms and podcasting and new ways of offering it to audiences is, I think, giving it a new lease of life.

“We find we have growing audiences everywhere, actually. That can be North America and Europe and parts of Africa, but also South Asia as well.

“Digital platforms and podcasting and new ways of offering radio to audiences is, I think, giving it a new lease of life.”

“We have some audience everywhere, and we've worked hard to make sure people can find us and can find a way to listen to what we do.

“The world as we know is a busy place, there's plenty of news going on.

“It's a very noisy place and I think actually people often have an appetite to turn to a source that they do know that they can trust.

“I think all of that means that what we offer people is really valued and they seek us out.”

When I first came to Prague I was totally reliant on the World Service – I had it on all day – and I still listen a lot. Sometimes I think that if you're outside the UK, you can really see the value of the World Service. But is the reach that it has and what it actually achieves fully understood sometimes within the UK?

“You're right that for some people in Britain the thing that matters most to them is the BBC services for British audiences and domestic audiences.

“But many people do know about BBC World Service and indeed a good number listen – we have a good audience in the UK.

“Occasionally the BBC does surveys of people and their attitudes to the BBC and actually what you find is a real pride in the BBC World Service.

“Because I think people do recognise that Britain has a very sort of distinctive media tradition in the BBC of a kind of independent public service broadcaster and they're proud to think that's something we offer to the world.”

The BBC World Service is often spoken about as being a tool of the UK's soft power abroad. How consciously is the World Service part of what you might call “brand UK”? And does that influence your programming?

“So we are independent, and that's an incredibly important and fundamental thing to say and understand.

“We are funded through the license fee, which is in essence a public funding, with some additional funding that comes via the Foreign Office.

“But that still has to be approved by Parliament, so it's a very transparent, publicly funded organisation. Not commercially funded, not state funded.

Photo: Kateřina Křenová
“I guess in a way we are lucky to operate in a country where the public, as we've discussed, and successive governments, of whichever political party, believe in the British tradition of independent, impartial news from the BBC.

“So it always has that support. And if in the end it means we represent or express a particular British value well, you know, so be it and that's to the good.”

Would you be more likely for instance to cover, I don't know, a royal wedding because you think people around the world associate that with the UK?

“Well, we will be covering the royal wedding [laughs], because we know that people are interested. Not everybody – some people of course are not.

“But many people are and we know there will be a big audience.

“And it's an interesting wedding; it does have news value, this wedding. The arrival of Meghan Markle into the British royal family is quite a moment.

“So we will be covering it, but that's because we recognise the news value and the audience interest.”

How much is the World Service facing relatively new rivals in the form of Russia Today and other broadcasters who are putting a lot of investment into extending their reach around the world?

“You’re right, the landscape has changed in this way and there are many more global news services.

“And that’s not to mention the huge proliferation on the internet of news and sometimes what people claim is news but perhaps isn’t.

“We obviously note the Chinese investment, the Russian investment and so on.

“We obviously note the Chinese investment, the Russian investment and so on. But in the end we also know that they do not have the same traditions or charters or embedded values of independence that we do.”

“But in the end we also know that they do not have the same traditions or charters or embedded values of independence that we do.

“We also know, and we’re proud of it, that when you do opinion surveys whether in Britain or indeed globally the BBC is – if not the most – usually one of the most trusted news sources.

“We don’t take that for granted. We work very hard to earn and keep that respect, based on our journalistic values, our commitment to accuracy and impartiality and our transparency and our regulation.”

I presume those other broadcasters also don’t have the great international network of reporters that the BBC World Service has. How much has the work of a reporter on the ground changed from your days here in Prague?

“I remember when I came here I had a little car in London and I sold it to buy a laptop. That was the sort of trade you did, because laptops very precious things, though they were there.

“I remember when I was out here being taught this very strange thing, which was how to file something over the internet, and the funny little whirring noise that the modem made. And I didn’t have a mobile phone.

“Of course, that’s massively changed. And it makes the job of a journalist much, much easier.

“Journalists can be incredibly mobile now. You can not just write and record but of course you can film now on an iPhone. You can send it back on an iPhone or via satellite.

“So it’s very instantaneous, very creative, and it’s wonderful to have that immediacy and presence.

“We also know it drives a kind of relentless pace of journalism and audiences expect that.

“One of the things that we strive for is to make sure that even while we are being fleet of foot and quick in our reporting we are also making sure to take the time to understand, to analyse and to take the time as well to write or produce longer broadcasts where you can add the context to the immediacy.”

You’re in Prague at the moment recording an edition of World Questions at the Archa Theatre. What is the value for the World Service of events like that?

“I remember when I came here I had a little car in London and I sold it to buy a laptop.”

“We go every month to a city somewhere in the world and we mount, I think, a powerful and important format.

“We have a BBC presenter and we invite a panel of politicians and public figures, so not all politicians, who represent some of the thinking and political opinion in a particular place, for a live event which we record.

“The key is we have an audience and the questions for the panel come from the audience. The panel doesn’t know what they’re going to be beforehand.

“So it’s a way or really taking the temperature in a place.

“Actually we find you can be somewhere and in a way some of the issues can feel quite local but they can still resonate, because some of the big issues of our time, like democracy or freedom of the press, or even how to make sure the rubbish is cleaned from our streets or how to do recycling better, or corruption – these are issues which have come up anywhere and everywhere.

The edition of World Questions recorded in Prague last week can be listened to here:

“So even if something is quite local it can really resonate in a global way.

“And we find that in many, many places this particular format doesn’t actually exist in the homegrown media.

“So we are creating a platform for a particular kind of political encounter and political debate, which we find has value and real interest.”