Throughout its history, the BBC has always found a place for carefully controlled eccentricity. There was Sir Robin Day with his bow-tie and brutal specs, Jeremy Paxman with his gurning huffiness, and the geekiness of weatherman Michael Fish.
The view from the corporation has always been that a small touch of personal weirdness in the presentation of fact and interpretation can add a welcome touch of colour to proceedings. When the BBC brought in Will Gompertz as arts correspondent a few years ago, an executive was asked about the new man’s lack of broadcasting experience. Gompertz was “a complete maverick and eccentric”, they explained, as if zaniness were now part of a senior correspondent’s job brief. In such a world, the on-screen persona of celebrity economics editor Robert Peston fits perfectly. He is knowledgeable yet highly individual, and has a verbal style which is all his own.
But over the past few days, Peston has been making non-economic news. Posing a question to George Osborne during the Chancellor’s trip to China, he lounged languidly in a chair, microphone held at a jaunty angle, chest hair bristling through an open-necked shirt in the manner of Barry Manilow singing “Could It Be Magic” to his adoring fans.
There was a gratifying fuss about this informality, in particular the lack of a tie. Viewers complained to Points of View that Peston’s choice of dress showed disrespect both to Osborne and to viewers. For others, though, Peston was the herald of a brave new, tieless Britain – a kinder, more egalitarian country where the old class-based dress codes have no place. Just as politics was being Corbynised, so serious broadcasting was being lightened up, Pestonised. A debate ensued. On Newsnight, Peston explained that he simply disliked wearing a tie. Speaking at the Radio Times festival, he argued that: “The notion that what makes a serious journalist is wearing a tie is bonkers.” In a Points of View interview, he explained that the interview with Osborne in China was “just me feeling a bit more relaxed in general about life and being a bit more relaxed-looking on telly is no bad thing”.
The arguments for and against wearing a tie – that it shows respect on the one hand, or that it is an outmoded signifier of a dead age of deference on the other – miss the point. Much as we may disapprove of the fact, we live in a divided world. There are those in charge – the establishment, the suits, the tie-wearers – and then there are the rest of us. If the BBC is to be Pestonised by being made more individual and less corporate, the process is more significant than simply a matter of what presenters wear. It is an erosion of the loose but important institutional identity, the under-pinning idea that those working for it are following a higher, shared calling rather than following a personal agenda. The tie is a useful symbol. Just as government will not work with ministers expressing their personality, so the BBC would lose its point if presenters became too maverick, too wackily individual.
Peston himself seems to be still working out whether he is at heart a shirt-and-tie corporate man, or not. His expressions of individuality – the idiosyncratic way he talks, those rather unhappy experiments with coiffure, his tielessness – have seemed, if not entirely at odds with his job, then at least a rather distracting parallel narrative. “I think of myself as the Marmite of broadcasters,” he said recently. As for the haircuts and the open shirt, they may be superficial, but “they are also about who we are”. There it is: the awkwardness of an establishment man who longs to be something else. There are rumours that the journalist is about to leave the BBC for the rather more relaxed environs of ITV, and that may be a sensible move.
A more important question is whether the BBC, in an attempt to seem part of a new, kind Britain, allows itself to be Pestonised. Until now, it has been an unwritten part of the corporation’s code that presenters and correspondents should avoid diverting attention from the news they are reporting. Today, with our obsession with the personal, that may seem as outmoded as a tie. There will be growing pressure to allow BBC staff the freedom to be less formal, and more themselves.
That would be a mistake. Conventions of dress, however absurd they may seem, serve a purpose. They remind us of the existence of an establishment at the centre of our national life, and show that the whims, tastes and preferences of individuals (however entertaining) are less significant than the events on which they are reporting. Once the focus of journalists shifts to themselves, there is a danger that their reporting will become infected by emotion, mood, personality.
The BBC has been right to keep eccentricity on a tight leash. The small risk of dullness is as nothing compared to the ghastly prospect of reporters, correspondents and experts showing off rather than doing their jobs.
As for Robert Peston, he is approaching a fork in the road. One way leads to the life of a senior correspondent, the other to fame, laughter and appearances on The Graham Norton Show. Tie or no tie: the choice is his.
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