As the BBC’s most high-profile business reporter, he is used to confronting the rich and powerful, but Robert Peston has admitted he let the Daily Mail “get away with it” when it revealed that his wife was suffering from cancer.
Mr Peston launched an impassioned attack on the paper on Monday night, saying that its conduct in 2008 went beyond what he “regarded [as] acceptable” when it reported that his late wife, the novelist Sian Busby, was in “high spirits” at a Royal Academy party as she was celebrating her “all-clear from lung cancer”.
The journalist, who was delivering the James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University, said that “there were a number of things wrong” with the report in January 2008, specifically that his wife “tragically” had not had the all-clear. Ms Busby went on to die in September 2012 at the age of 51, five years after she was first diagnosed.
Mr Peston, who rose to prominence during the financial crisis of 2008, said there was no “public interest justification” to the story. He also said it contained several inaccuracies and he and his wife were not warned about its publication in advance.
The BBC journalist, who spent 23 years in newspapers – including The Independent – before joining the BBC, added: “[The] really maddening thing about that piece was that the Mail ran the story without bothering to give us any advance warning, or to check whether it was appropriate … We had gone out of our way to keep out of the public domain that Sian was suffering from such a serious cancer, because we wanted our children to have as normal and untroubled a life as possible.
“In particular we didn’t want our youngest boy – who was still at primary school – to be badgered by kids in the playground about his mum.”
Admitting he accepted he was a “fair target” because of his “prominent position”, he explained how the paper had for years regarded him as “a pompous ... egomaniac who had to be cut down to size”.
Since the death of his wife, he continued, the Mail had laid off, “presumably because the importance of cutting me down to size was rather lessened by a personal tragedy that might elicit public sympathy”.
“My instinct was to complain to the Mail and its editors. Sian asked me not to, because she was frail and did not want the added stress of seeing me go to war with a powerful newspaper. So the Mail got away with it. As it often does.”
A spokesman for the Daily Mail said: “We very much regret the distress clearly caused by our 2008 diary piece, but it is important to understand the background.
"This was a positive and upbeat three-paragraph item published after our diary reporter John McEntee was introduced as a Mail diary journalist to Mrs Peston by a well-known freelance celebrity press photographer – who is also the late Mrs Peston’s cousin - at a book launch in January 2008.
"McEntee had a friendly conversation with Mrs Peston during which she volunteered information about her forthcoming book and her illness, which he quoted in his story. She also posed for a picture with her husband, which we published alongside the story. No complaint was made to the Daily Mail at the time or since.
"We are sorry to learn some six years later that the story was not accurate and offer our sincere apologies.’