News International and Robert Peston: The Story behind the Exclusives

The BBC Business Editor has been shoved into the spotlight recently over a number of curious phone hacking exclusives. Many have broken at times advantageous to News International,and whilst Rebekah Brooks was still at the company, some also appeared to shift the pressure off her and onto the seemingly hung-out-to-dry Andy Coulson. Certainly there are searching questions raised by his recent conduct, yet there are definite arguments that defend Peston which have previously gone unheard.

Between the pages of Peston’s address book are some key players in the phone hacking scandal. He has a rather interesting relationship with James Murdoch: at an Edinburgh dinner in August 2009 an argument between them led to Peston yelling “If you think you can get fucking angry, I can get fucking angry”1. Yet one year after the shouting match, he invited Murdoch to speak at a private BBC event2.

Additionally, whilst previously working at the Financial Times, Peston befriended

Robert Peston and good friend Will Lewis

colleague Will Lewis – now general manager of NI. Lewis went on to appoint old school friend, also his godchild’s father, and PR man Simon Greenberg as director of corporate affairs. Lewis and Greenberg are both members of the “Management and Standards Committee” – the branch of NI liaising with Scotland Yard over the scandal.

This curious nexus has rightly raised the eyebrows of MPs, fellow presses and the public. But Peston is an award winning journalist3, and some say that despite compromising personal relationships, others are quick to forget his reputation as a trusted and respected BBC employee.

Tom Watson claimed “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”4. A week later, after another curiously timed exclusive, Watson confronted Peston on Twitter.

Watson appears to believe that Peston is helping NI bury bad news on busy days. But David Lester asks Peston “Is there any chance that Will [Lewis] is using you and will dump you in it at some suitable juncture?”5 Lester implies Peston is unaware of the aid he is giving NI, and perhaps Peston is unknowingly releasing the stories at such times.

On the other hand, far from Peston being innocent or acting “patsy” for NI, they may in fact be scratching each other’s backs. Releasing information on dubious days may be beneficial to them both: for NI get minimal coverage and Peston gets that exclusive that every news organisation is competing for. Although, ofc course they may not necessarily be linked.

However there are strong arguments in defence. If Peston receives information from NI on these busy days, it would be difficult for him to withhold the story for a quieter day. Delaying the release could be seen as more suspicious than publishing the story immediately and also lead to questions about his impartiality as a journalist. Furthermore, the phone hacking scandal is based on withheld information, hidden practises, and shoddy journalism – it would thus be quite bizarre and morally hypocritical to postpone reporting the truth to a more convenient date.

So if Peston is being ‘spoon-fed’ this information, by publishing immediately it may be seen as the right thing to do as a journalist, or at least the lesser of two evils.

Alternatively, even if he does believe that he is being used by NI, he may reason that this is a small price to pay when compared to the high demand for the truth. Those who are truly captivated by the story will make time to analyse and scrutinise the story, regardless of when the information is released.

Peston’s manager Jeremy Hillman also 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. 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.”6

It seems to be that the story behind Peston’s exclusives is complex, and a delicate balance of relationships that results in a rather grey situation. Some people seem too sceptical of his professionalism and quick to disregard his reputation whereas others seem reluctant to scrutinise his conduct and contacts. What do you think?

.

.

Extracts Peston’s Blog7 – Exclusives Peston broke marked in bold

5th July – 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.”

10th July – NI found “smoking gun” emails that “appear to show” that Mr Coulson authorised the payments

11th July – Email cache showed that the under Andy Coulson NotW paid a Royal Protection Officer for Royal phone numbers

18th July – US DoJ quizzes SFO on News International

– BskyB: Decision expected on James Murdoch’s role

21st July – James Murdoch’s evidence challenged by Colin Myler and Tom Crone

– Dismissal of a Sun journalist in relation to phone hacking

4th August – Detective firm invoiced Mirror 230 times in two years

16th August – Murdochs savaged by Harbottle: evidenced to DCMS Committee

22nd August – Coulson got payments from NI

The Ethics of Spin

Oliver, Campbell and CoulsonThe Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘spin-doctor’ as ‘a spokesperson for a political party or politician employed to give a favourable interpretation of events to the media’. Yet since the very beginnings of New Labour, spin has evolved to form a seemingly inextricable bond with political communication and strategy. Over the years, ‘spin’ and ‘spin-doctors’ have developed negative connotations, but is spinning absolutely and intrinsically wrong, or has it a justifiable place in modern politics?

Impartiality NB: Despite the negative connotations of ‘spin-doctor’, it will be used neutrally to describe those that hold the position of Political Advisor or Director of Communication.

The most common (and perhaps strongest) argument against the use of spin is as follows: spin inevitably walks hand-in-hand with distrust and deceit, distrust and deceit are wrong, ergo spin is also wrong. Furthermore, some argue that the ‘untruthful’ nature of spin creates a void between the government and the public; with former PM John Major claiming that “the erosion of trust has now reached the point where it is undermining the ability of the government to call on the trust of the people”.

It is also argued that the characteristics and experience required for the job increases the likelihood of unethical practise. This is not to say this is always the case, but it can be argued that the government’s preference for media background, especially thick-skinned tabloid journalists with ‘bite’, may attract a certain character.

Some believe that trust and spin are inversely proportional and spin can create a void of opacity between the government and the public that breaks down the dynamic relationship necessary for a healthy political system. Many people attempt to illustrate this by citing examples from Alastair Campbell’s years in office.

So, to conclude, the leading argument against the use of spin is that it inevitably includes immoral actions, fuelled by typical spin-doctor characteristics, leading to less transparent and accountable governments.

But let us consider the flip side of the coin – a position rarely explored by anyone other than partisans attempting to justify their party’s actions. Some argue that spin is unavoidable, and thus employing a spin-doctor is a more efficient way of articulating the process which everyone engages in.

They believe the world is too complex to try and achieve an objective truth – everyone’s experiences and perceptions (even if of the same situation) can and do differ wildly. In other words, everyone is bias. It is therefore a spin-doctor’s job to present versions of events in a manner that favours the government. Since ‘real’ truth is unattainable, re-presenting the information should not be deemed wrong in itself.

Memories and daily conversations both include recollection and reconstruction of events and experiences; and some argue the reconstruction process will (perhaps unknowingly) be spun in ways favourable to particulars. Media outlets may also practise spin; presenting a version of the truth that will appeal to their target audience is considered by many to be ‘spinning’. Yet in this case, opinionated re-presenting of events (e.g. ‘opinion pieces’) is a common and popular occurrence. Some then argue that in order to achieve some kind of balance, ‘media spin’ must be responded to by ‘government spin’.

Those who are in favour of spinning often argue that deeming spin morally acceptable whilst simultaneously encouraging a rigorous perpetual scrutiny process are not contradictory views. They accept and argue the need for balance in a pluralistic society and are aware of the moral dangers in allowing ends to justify means (and vice versa).

So, the main argument for spin is that since nothing can ever be re-presented and subsequently classed as ‘objectively true’ an inevitable dynamic develops between government, media, interest groups and the public, as they all strive to deliver their messages.

However, it is a common view that in comparison to most jobs, politics is moral minefield – there is an unusually high frequency of moral dilemmas, each with an atypical level of associated risk, with most choices resulting in heavy consequences. Should high moral stakes deter the use of spin, or justify its existence?

Cross-party co-operation: collaboration or conducive?

John HuttonIn March, John Hutton, the former New Labour Work and Pensions Secretary, published an independent report on public sector pensions, unintentionally eigniting the debate on whether cross-party co-operation should be viewed in a positive or negative light.

As with most overtly partisan issues, opinions are concrete, fierce and bountiful, leading to conclusions which are sometimes drawn viscerally rather than using logic and reason. We hope to break through the tribal emotions and instead present the facts surrounding this incredibly divisive issue.

Impartiality NB: Despite ‘collaboration’ and ‘tribalism’ having strong connotations, in this piece they are used solely as ‘politically non-partisan cooperation’ and ‘the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe’ respectively.

Clearing up the confusion

Many of the arguments against cross-party co-operation can be grouped into two categories: intrinsic arguments and instrumental arguments. The intrinsic argument says that the entire idea of someone from party A aiding party B is wrong, whatever the circumstances. The instrumental argument suggests that co-operation is deplorable, not because of the principle, but because of the situational factors and content of said co-operation.

In the current debate, the flag-bearer of the intrinsic argument is Lord Prescott, who summarised the critic quite succinctly¹:

“They’ve [John Hutton and Frank Field] now turned a Con-Lib Government to a ConLibLab one and made themselves human shields for the most savage and heartless Tory policies in 20 years. Policies that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest – the very people Labour was founded to protect.”

John Prescott’s argument was presented months before either Hutton or Field (the government’s ‘poverty czar’) announced their findings, so therefore is an intrinsic objection rather than an instrumental one.

Advocates fear that any cross-party collaboration would ‘blur the lines’ between parties. This would leave the public with only one choice and reduce the ability of the opposition to oppose; leading to a situation where there is less cross-party scrutiny.

Another option is that such co-operation could lead to a more co-operative, collegiate, political environment, that some would view as favourable.

The instrumental argument focuses on content of Hutton’s report, as opposed to the act of producing a report for the Conservatives. If Hutton’s conclusions had supported the instrumentalists views, would these people’s reaction to the collaboration have been different?

Those who support Hutton, Field and Milburn (currently advising the government on social mobility), stress that such co-operation will improve governmental decisions. They believe that this government will make more informed decisions on social mobility through Milburn, on public pensions through Hutton and on reducing poverty through Field. Additionally, it is suggested that cross-party involvement will help ensure fairer policies, and a better critical analysis of policies.

However, John Prescott, among others, believes that by advising the Conservatives, Hutton, Field and Milburn are unwillingly providing electoral cover and giving the Tories more of a mandate². Prescott fears that their involvement will make this government more accepted by the public and therefore cause Labour to suffer in the future.

Some argue that goals like reducing poverty are best achieved with cross-party consensus. Gordon Brown attempted to create a ‘government of all talents’ (GOAT), featuring non-partisan members in order to make the government more responsive and collaborative³. It has been argued that if good policies are created, does it really matter what colour someone’s rosette is, or whether they’re even wearing one at all?

Some will argue that party aims can only be achieved through tight discipline and a unified party operating as one, believing that cross-party cooperation will have an adverse effect on the party.

What do you think? What stance do you support? Should we focus solely on the ends, or do means matter too? Are Hutton and co. right to be involved with their opposition parties? Should cross-party cooperation be encouraged or shunned?