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
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