Belfast Telegraph

Why Google chief believes technology is just like punk

By Jamie Stinson

Growing up in Troubles-torn Belfast, former Newsnight editor Peter Barron, now Google's head of communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, recalls gazing out of the school window to see a bomb disposal unit at work. In a desire to escape the harsh realities of life in Belfast in the 1970s, he turned to the excitement and hope offered by the city's punk scene, after getting a guitar for his 14th birthday. He played in a band called Pig Awful and one night at the Pound Club in Townhall Street, threw himself off-stage - smashing his head off the club's low rafters.

Mr Barron returned last month to his old school, Royal Belfast Academical Institution, to talk to pupils about the changing world of media.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he said the growing technology sector shared many traits with a rebellious attitude of punk, probably his biggest formative influence.

"Punk was a wonderful thing because it was led by kids," said Mr Barron, who grew up in Four Winds in Belfast, the youngest of three.

"There were an awful lot of bad things going on and politicians weren't necessarily making matters better and it was teenage kids saying it doesn't have to be like this, we can seize something better and more hopeful."

Now 52, he lives in London with wife Julia, an independent producer for current affairs programmes such as Dispatches and Panorama, and three children, George (17), Martha (16), and Luke (14). But his love of punk continues. His band The Bad Things - he is vocalist and guitarist - supported Belfast punk pioneers Protex at a recent gig in London. He's also been known to jam with Channel 4 News' Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Before moving to Google, Mr Barron had a successful career in journalism, starting on an English language newspaper in Portugal after studying European Studies and Modern Languages in Manchester.

He joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1988. After stints at Tonight with Trevor McDonald and Channel 4 News, he became Newsnight editor in 2004. He became known for introducing innovations like interactive features to Newsnight and writing a blog - and introduced Newsnight Weather, much to the disgust of then-presenter Jeremy Paxman (right). Mr Barron said the move to the search engine giant in 2008 was "a natural progression" as he "became more and more interested in the world of internet and what used to be called new media." Technology played a big role in his childhood, with dad Wilson, a manager at Northern Ireland Electricity Service - a forerunner of NIE - a "great radio amateur and great at building and working at computers." He admits that even though the internet has been an immensely powerful change for the better, it has "brought all kinds of difficult issues along with it".

"In my role I spend a lot of time wrestling with the issues that have been thrown up by the internet revolution, whether to do with privacy or competition, for example in Europe.

"We are working with the European Commission to resolve it because it (competition) has been going on for five years now."

It may be 40 years since it began, but Mr Barron said the Northern Ireland punk scene lives on through those who lived through it.

"I think for me Northern Irish punk music was an extremely important thing. First of all because it was an inspiring cross-community thing, but also because it was about kids seizing the opportunity to publish themselves, to get involved in music and the media. And I think that shone through later on."

However, the dark cloud hanging over Northern Ireland is gone, and Mr Barron believes a lot has changed for the better. There has been huge growth in the digital economy, and he finds parallels between the punk movement in the 1970s and the tech boom.

There is a 'do-it-yourself' attitude and a disregard for tradition shared by both, he says. "It's like saying I don't need anyone's permission, I don't need to listen to a middle man, I can just do it myself.

"There's a wonderful scene from the film Shellshock Rock where Terri Hooley holds up a copy of a record of Big Time by Rudi, and he's literally jumping up and down saying it was a mystery how to do this until we came along and worked out that any kid could make a record. There is a very strong parallel with that and the technology platforms that exist today.

"These are free platforms, whether YouTube or Facebook or Twitter, and anyone can become a publisher or perform to a global audience, anyone can set up a business and sell their wares to an audience of billions of people around the world."

Mr Barron spoke highly of Northern Ireland's burgeoning tech sector, which he feels is "punching above its weight".

He pointed to the growing businesses in the Titanic Quarter and the Northern Ireland Science Park as examples. He said: "There is a lot of growth in the sector. There are huge opportunities, but a shortage of people with the right qualifications.

"Every business should make sure it has digital skills and that it understands how to build a website, to advertise your wares online." The EU predicts a shortfall of 900,000 skilled workers in the sector over the next five years, Mr Barron said.

He believes it is a very positive step that school children are learning coding.

People in Northern Ireland can be too inward looking, and need to take a broader international perspective to see the "huge opportunities" available, Mr Barron added.

"The revolution in communications means there are no boundaries or borders any more. You can communicate with people in America as easily as with people in the next street."

The boom in online devices and in particular mobile, has been at the forefront of that. Mr Barron calls the shift from desktop computers to mobile over the last three or four years "absolutely mind-blowing".

He points to the development of voice recognition technology and foreign language translation apps, as examples of speed of growth in mobile. He believes the next trend will be connected devices - part of the internet of things, where all devices and technology in the home connect to the internet.

For the last five years, Google's dominance and influence have been a hot topic for the European Commission (EC). Last month the EC announced an antitrust suit against the firm, amid accusations it was abusing its position by promoting its own products over those of its rivals. Mr Barron said: "We've always co-operated with the European Commission on that, and let's see what happens next. We think we are offering a very good service for our users, but we're happy to talk to the commission and seek to resolve their concerns."

This time it's personal...

Q Do you prefer the town or country - and why?

A I'm fundamentally a townie, but I love the Spanish countryside, and Donegal.

Q The world of news has changed immeasurably in the last five years - what do you think wrought the most significant shift, ie, Google News, Twitter, etc?

A The way people consume news online has had a big disruptive impact on the industry, but think too of all the opportunities technology brings to journalism. Today, a journalist with a smartphone can not only access all the world's information, but gather and record news and broadcast it to a global audience of billions of people.

Q Have you any career advice for anyone setting off in journalism/communications?

A If you're an aspiring journalist, never wait for anyone to ask you to write or film something - just start doing it yourself. Grab all the tools at your disposal and start expressing yourself.

Q What was the last book you read, and what was it like?

A Personal Record by Gerald Brenan (above, right) - about the writer with Belfast roots who settles in a remote part of Spain in the 1920s.

Q What was your last holiday - and what will your next holiday be?

A It was to the mountains near Seville to try to buy a holiday house, and I hope our next holiday will be there.

Q What is your favourite band/album?

A Probably Bob Dylan, maybe Blood on the Tracks, and Van Morrison's His Band and the Street Choir (below) is way up there, too.

Belfast Telegraph