Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor, is probably the most powerful British journalist I have known in my lifetime. A word from him in recent weeks could bring down a bank – or save it. This is a remarkable state of affairs, and we need to examine whether he uses his power responsibly, and whether he has too much of it.
Let me first say that I greatly admire Mr Peston as a journalist. I know him slightly, and many years ago we were colleagues on the same newspaper. He is an old-fashioned “scoop merchant” and story-getter combined with first-class analyst. This makes him a very exceptional journalist indeed since brilliant reporters tend to be weak on analysis and comment while many outstanding pundits would not recognise a story if they ran straight into it.
Mr Peston has it all – apart from a smooth delivery on television and radio. Like anyone, he can get things wrong. In 1997, when he was working for the Financial Times, he wrote that the newly elected Labour government was committed to joining the euro during its first spell in office, and sent the markets into a spin. On that occasion he was mistaken, but much more often than not he is right. Over the past year he may have not have been perfect in every detail, but story after story has been vindicated.
So why do I feel misgivings? My anxieties arise from the role the BBC plays in our national life, and the amazing prominence Mr Peston has within the Corporation. Unlike many newspapers, the BBC is not scoop-driven. It aims to be calm, authoritative, and balanced. It is usually cautious. Mr Peston, by contrast, has been raised in a different culture. His proactive approach is at odds with the conservative news values of the BBC, which he joined nearly three years ago.
In normal times this would not matter. Indeed, it would probably be a good thing if the BBC were shaken up a little, and Mr Peston, with his terrier-like approach to news, might well be the man to do it. But these are not normal times. We are clinging to the end of a precipice – or have we already let go? I am not at all sure that Mr Peston’s tone is appropriate for the hour.
Look at the way that the BBC uses him. Whereas its political editor Nick Robinson has many highly visible and voluble colleagues, Mr Peston is allowed to dominate the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis morning, noon, and night. He wakes us up on the Today Programme, and sends us off to bed on BBC1’s BBC News at Ten. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of his excellent (and much calmer) colleague Hugh Pym, but for most of the time Mr Peston holds centre stage, offering unflagging news, analysis and comment.
Can it be right for one voice to be so dominant on our pre-eminent broadcasting organisation in respect of the most important story of the year, if not the decade? Mr Peston, with his journalistic brilliance and boundless energy, has almost literally cornered this story. After Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, he has become the most important man in the financial crisis.
He often operates from home, where he is hooked up to the BBC, and blasts off a flurry of blogs and instant “takes” on the latest news, not infrequently moving on the story himself. Here I should mention his unique staccato delivery, possibly originally engineered to conceal a stutter, which scarcely induces a sense of serenity. If Mr Peston read the Shipping Forecast, he would have seasoned mariners abandoning ship.
His frenzied, round-the-clock way of doing business creates another danger. In the scoop-driven newspaper culture in which he has spent most of his career, Mr Peston would be circumscribed by his editor. Popping up at the BBC in all kinds of outlets at all times of day and night, he is subject to no such restraining hand. The 24-hour nature of the story would anyway make it difficult to apply one. Mr Peston is barking down the ISDN line in his spare bedroom while the BBC’s Mark Thompson or Helen Boaden or whoever it may be is drinking cocoa at home. The paradox is that in the scoop-driven newspaper world Mr Peston was more tightly controlled than he is at the traditionally almost scoop-free BBC.
My argument is that the all-powerful Corporation – by the side of which the Daily Mail looks like a parish magazine – has allowed Mr Peston unmatched star billing, while running him on a very light rein. On the whole he has used his enormous power responsibly. I am sure he does not yearn to bring banks crashing down. But there have been occasions when his excitable presentation may have engendered market panic.
Thirteen months ago Mr Peston reported that the Bank of England was about to act as lender of last resort to Northern Rock. The following day there was a run on the bank. Many have pointed out his old mate Roland Rudd runs the financial PR
firm Finsbury and represented Northern Rock, but the story probably emanated from No 10, where Mr Peston, a notable biographer of Gordon Brown, has excellent sources. No 10, more used to spinning political stories than market-moving economic ones, did not foresee the consequences of Mr Peston’s apocalyptic revelation.
At the beginning of last week the BBC led its morning news bulletins with Mr Peston’s announcement that three of our biggest banks had asked Mr Darling for billions of pounds in funding, and were unhappy about the delay. Royal Bank of Scotland’s shares fell by 40 per cent. One more day, and the bank might have been wiped out. Many think that Mr Peston’s story bounced the Government into introducing its emergency package in a hurry, and was therefore probably leaked to him by one or more of the troubled banks.
In the first case, No 10, if it was the culprit, was at fault in giving the story to Mr Peston. In the second, the banks, assuming they were responsible for last week’s leak, were using him. We could say that he was no more than a messenger – but a messenger who chose to accept a message that carried enormous destructive power. His presentation may have given the message some extra velocity. Whether it did so or not, he became a participant in events |who moved markets, a shaper of |outcomes.
I repeat that Mr Peston is a brilliant journalist with bags of integrity. I certainly don’t want him to lose his job, or even to have his knuckles rapped. I would just like the top honchos at the BBC to think more deeply about the extraordinary power they have given him, and the uses to which it is being put. And it would be a good idea if Mr Peston, who not unnaturally thinks very highly of himself, reflected a little more about the role he is playing in this terrifying crisis.