Tim Pemberton talks about his work at the BBC and how his discovery of philosophy at Lancaster helped him to grow in confidence.
Tim Pemberton has always believed in seizing opportunities and now, having jumped at the chance to take charge of the BBC’s broadcasting for the whole African continent, he feels such daily excitement about his high-profile role that he questions whether it is really happening to him.
It’s a huge job, requiring regular travel to locations like Abuja, Accra, Nairobi, Dakar and Dar es Salaam, which are among the 15 bureaux broadcasting to nearly a billion people and staffed by more than 200 people for which he has responsibility across the continent. Back in London he manages a team of 90 in the BBC’s Africa hub.
“It’s a fantastic job with a really talented bunch of people,” he says. “I am in awe of them. This is where my experience at Lancaster University has stood me in good stead. Because I encountered such a broad mix of people who taught me many things and opened my eyes to the big wide world, I now feel comfortable to sit with this diverse group of talented colleagues and to take the lead.”
He had always loved radio, and grew up in Birmingham listening to Radio 4. He was still a teenager when he witnessed his elder brother - who was serving in the RAF - broadcasting on the forces radio station, BFBS. He was immediately smitten with the idea, but it took many attempts before his application to the BBC was successful.
His path from Birmingham to Lancaster was thanks to the encouragement of David Westwood, a remarkable English teacher at Wheelers Lane School in Birmingham which he attended, who saw promise in his young pupil and, knowing that his father was a minister, encouraged him to study comparative religion. Lancaster was the obvious place because of the reputation of the late Professor Ninian Smart.
“It was number one for me,” says Tim. “It was brilliant to have time in tutorials to discuss ideas, but also to have one to ones with the lecturers. As a young black kid from an urban environment, I was just delighted to land at university and exchange ideas.”
In the end it was Philosophy that really excited him and took over from his Religious Studies. Lecturers who left their mark were Ninian Smart, David Catchpole and Dr Colin Lyas. One of the latter’s lectures was particularly memorable for the son of a minister when he posed the question ‘Is Morality Independent of God?’ and illustrated it with the Old Testament story of Abraham staying his decision to kill his son Isaac. Tim says: “Coming from a religious household, that was like dynamite to me!” But he lapped it up and he continues: “I grew in confidence - that’s what Lancaster gave me particularly through the study of philosophy. If I had my way I would get everybody to study it. It taught me to think in a structured way and to examine the arguments.”
His main regret is that he did not socialise more. He was a sporty youngster, so played football, cricket and badminton, as well as going to rugby club events. His social life opened up when two members of the Afro Caribbean Society - Carnette Richardson and Mabel Taunu - spotted him on campus and took him under their wing. This society would collaborate with other minority societies, such as the South Asian and the Chinese societies, giving Tim the chance to learn about new cultures. He was also involved in University Chaplaincy activities.
Tim spent a lot of time at Bailrigg Radio, which gave him good experience of writing, interviewing and planning programmes. It also fuelled his broadcasting ambitions. One of his most memorable and enjoyable endeavours was to be hired as a bouncer for reggae nights in a Lancaster club, hosted by fellow student Paul Walker, described by Tim as as ‘the coolest white guy on the planet’. It was an enjoyable way to earn some pocket money.
The end of his time at Lancaster saw Tim still hankering to work at the BBC, but with the careers advice that he stood little chance and should consider Accountancy. He ignored the advice, but feeling the pressure of a £400 overdraft, he took a series of jobs with West Midlands Police and Birmingham Education Department until he landed a job with Macro Films, a video training and production company.
This was a useful step for him but when a traineeship with the BBC came up, a colleague suggested Tim do it. It meant a pay cut, but Tim’s wife told him to go for it regardless and he has not looked back. His career with the BBC stretches over 27 years, but it has not been planned. Tim had a series of jobs after finishing his BBC traineeship, including Producer at BBC Wales, Senior Producer for Religion and Ethics and Managing Editor for BBC News in Bristol. In 2015 he had an opportunity to work for the Director General for a year, which he grabbed. It was a chance to be noticed in the period of the renegotiation of the BBC Charter. This led to his current post as Executive Editor with the BBC’s Africa Service, which he feels was made for him.
The core of the job of Executive Editor for BBC Africa is managing the managers of six language services, each of whom has their own Head of TV, radio and digital services. Tim sets the vision, guides the setting of targets and runs the long editorial meetings.
Decades after his Lancaster finals he still feels his choice of subject contributes to his numerous daily meetings with colleagues from many different cultures: “I think that studying Philosophy itself has given me a huge advantage in helping me to ask intelligent questions on any subject, and also to see beyond the bluster.”