BBC in a spin over Robert Peston's inside track to News International

Ian Burrell,Media Editor
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:24

"Can someone please tell me who Robert Peston works for?" asked one respondent yesterday on the BBC business editor's must-read blog on the corporation's website.

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Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has been an influential figure in exposing the extent of phone hacking at News International, was voicing similar concerns: "Robert Peston is being spoon-fed the internal NI document handed over to the Met in chunks. They're spinning their bad news. It's not right."

The award-winning Mr Peston is known for his extensive contacts book and among his close friends are two fellow north Londoners: Will Lewis, a former professional colleague and now the general manager at Rupert Murdoch's News International; and Simon Greenberg, who was picked by Mr Lewis to become the company's director of corporate affairs.

Mr Lewis and Mr Greenberg are members of the new News International "Management and Standards Committee" and have been part of the recent confidential discussions between the company and Scotland Yard.

Shortly before Christmas, Mr Peston hosted a private event at the BBC at which James Murdoch, News Corp's chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, talked of the company's future plans. Mr Murdoch, who attended at the invitation of the BBC, addressed a select group of less than 20 senior BBC figures and discussed the News Corp bid for total control of BSkyB, although he made no reference to the phone-hacking affair.

That event and Mr Peston's role at it are indicative of the business editor's status, although he had previously clashed with James Murdoch at a dinner in Edinburgh in 2009, shortly after the News Corp scion had made a public attack on the BBC.

Mr Peston's relations with Mr Lewis, with whom he formerly worked at the Financial Times, go much deeper.

None of this would be a problem for the BBC if it were not for the suggestion that Mr Peston's scoops this month were helpful to Mr Murdoch's media organisation or factions within it.

Mr Peston's first exclusive, revealed on the Ten O'Clock News on Tuesday last week, was the discovery by News International of emails showing payments to the police by the News of the World during the editorship of Andy Coulson. The story heaped further blame on Mr Coulson, who was questioned by police last Friday.

By Sunday, Mr Peston had gone further, revealing that emails had been found which appeared to show Mr Coulson had authorised the payments. The next day he released further details from the communications, claiming they showed Mr Coulson's paper paid a Royal Protection Officer for the contact details of members of the Royal Family.

As concerns were raised over Mr Peston's role in the story, some of his respondents expressed concern. "Is there a chance that Will [Lewis] is using you and will dump you in it at some suitable juncture?" asked David Lester yesterday. "Because from where I'm sitting, I wouldn't want to get caught between the forces now coming into play."

The BBC's position in reporting this story is particularly sensitive, given its intense rivalry with News Corp. The BBC director-general Mark Thompson responded to James Murdoch's 2009 attack with an assault on BSkyB's lack of contribution to the British creative industries. Later, Mr Thompson signed up to a letter of concern over News Corp's bid to fully own the satellite broadcaster, prompting criticisms from the BBC Trust, which feared the letter would not assist BBC's journalists in covering the story impartially.

Mr Peston's department manager, Jeremy Hillman, editor of the BBC Economics and Business Unit, defended his colleague. "Robert almost always uses multiple sources for anything he reports and we reject the suggestion that there is any bias in Robert's reports, or indeed any conflict of interest because none exists," he said.

"It would be very hard to make a convincing case that Robert's reporting is anything other than impartial, reflecting a range of views and interests on this complex story."

Robert Peston's hacking reports

* In his first big scoop, on 5 July, Robert Peston reported, with some understatement, the "significant development" that the News of the World under former editor Andy Coulson had paid police officers for information. He later admitted: "I obtained this story in a circuitous route, when I heard that Vanity Fair was planning to publish a story on alleged payments to police."

* Days later, on 10 July, the BBC business editor dropped the news that News International had found "smoking gun" emails that "appear to show" that Mr Coulson authorised the payments.

* On Monday came further revelations, distracting from the furore surrounding Rebekah Brooks, that the email cache showed that the News of the World under Mr Coulson paid a Royal Protection Officer for Royal phone numbers.

* Collectively the stories were hugely damaging to Mr Coulson, the former Downing Street communications chief. They also gave News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks some respite from being the face of the hacking story, and represented the general manager of News International Will Lewis, Peston's close friend, as the company's new broom.