Stephen Glover: What's the secret scoop merchant Peston?
Monday 01 August 2011
Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, is a member of the board of the Media Standards Trust, an organisation committed to "quality, transparency and accountability in news". I wonder what it has to say about Mr Peston's apparent reliance on a close friend for a series of scoops that may serve the best interests of that friend – Will Lewis, group general manager at Rupert Murdoch's News International, and a former editor of The Daily Telegraph.
On 20 December last year, Mr Peston disclosed on his BBC blog that the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, had told two Daily Telegraph journalists that he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch, and would try to block the media tycoon's bid for BSkyB. An investigation by The New York Times drawing on a Telegraph internal investigation has now confirmed what we had long suspected – that Will Lewis was "involved in orchestrating the leak of the information" to Mr Peston. The paper says Mr Lewis may have relied on a computer technician at The Telegraph called Jim Robinson, who now works for him at News International.
Mr Peston's scoop predictably led to Mr Cable being taken off the case, and his replacement by Jeremy Hunt, who was at that stage minded to wave through Mr Murdoch's bid. The benefit to Mr Lewis was plain, though there is no suggestion he did anything illegal. It might be argued that the effect would have been identical if The Telegraph had published the story, but it had been held back for reasons which are still disputed. Mr Lewis may have believed that, without his intervention, information beneficial to his boss Rupert Murdoch would never be published.
Throughout the phone-hacking scandal Mr Peston has produced a series of mini-scoops which have also been traced back to Mr Lewis. It has been suggested that Mr Lewis's motive has been to deflect media interest away from News International towards issues like police corruption and Andy Coulson's alleged involvement. When Mr Peston reported on the evening of 21 July – the day of the Murdochs' interrogation in the Commons – that The Sun had sacked a former features editor, the Labour MP Tom Watson accused him of being "spoon-fed" stories by News International to distract attention from the Murdochs' evidence. The BBC man called the charge "outrageous and untrue".
Mr Peston is the foremost "scoop merchant" of our times. He could reasonably argue that the stories I have mentioned were true. But their leaking, and in particular the timing of their leaking, may have suited Mr Lewis and his employer. For all his love of scoops, I can't believe Mr Peston would relish being manipulated by a friend.
Rich pickings to be enjoyed on Sundays
Amazing things are happening in the Sunday tabloid market as a result of the closure of the News of the World. Eight days ago (we don't yet have figures for yesterday) the Mail on Sunday put on 500,000 copies to 2.4 million while the previously flagging Sunday Mirror rose an astonishing 900,000 to just over two million. Other tabloids reported useful increases. Evidently former News of the World readers don't want to spend a Sunday without a newspaper.
Where does this leave News International's thoughts about a Sunday edition of the Sun, and Associated Newspaper's ideas about launching a Sunday red-top? Both might reasonably conclude that if the relatively weak Sunday Mirror can thrive, there may be rich pickings in this market. On the other hand, Associated may wonder whether there are not greater rewards to be had by pushing the Mail on Sunday rather than by launching a new title which would have a lot of competition on its hands, especially if there were a seventh day edition of the Sun.
One party Rebekah and James missed
Last week, having received information from a reliable source, I suggested that Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch were among guests at George Osborne's 40th birthday party on 18 June. Their names did not feature on the list of meetings released by the Chancellor last week, and his office has subsequently assured me they were not present.
Why I have sympathy for the departing PCC chair
Baroness Buscombe has fallen on her sword by announcing that she will not seek to extend her three-year stint as chair of the Press Complaints Commission. I do not suggest her tenure was outstanding. One problem, perhaps, was that she does not really understand how newspapers work. But the ordure that has been poured on the PCC, and by implication on her, by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and a host of others seems misplaced.
The particular charge is that she presided over a hopelessly inadequate inquiry into the News of the World hacking scandal, which concluded that there was no further case to answer. But what can one do if seemingly respectable people consistently lie? Mr Cameron and a Commons select committee were also taken in. No doubt Lady Buscombe should have been more sceptical.
Without question she would have benefited from more high-powered invigilators. But it seems unfair to blame her for the moral failures of the News of the World and the PCC's lack of robust investigative powers.
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