Robert Peston’s sources

September 30, 2008

To hear Robert Peston‘s account of the financial crisis you might wonder where he gets his information. He is a terrific reporter and seeker-out-of-scoops. But at what point does a journalist with really cut-glass sources stop being a journalist and start being – well – a cypher?

And in the current financial crisis, just when does a cypher become a syphon? The author of Brown’s Britain might well wonder.

Take this version (go to the 8am news belt or see the version blogged here) of events surrounding the nationalisation of the Bradford and Bingley on Monday morning, just as the Tory Party conference kicked off (disclosure: I’m not a Conservative).

Sounds like it could have come straight from the cold hard lips of a Brown loyalist like…Sue Nye. Surely though, Peston isn’t just a government spokesman? His job title, after all, is Business Editor.

Here’s some of his live from the Today programme. Judge for yourself:

The most politically explosive aspect of Bradford and Bingley’s nationalisation is how much risk of losses is being born by the taxpayer.

The answer, surprisingly, is not much.

Because the bulk of any future losses will be born first by shareholders and providers of what’s called subordinated debt.

And after that losses – up to a staggering £15 billion – would fall on our beleaguered banking industry.

For taxpayers to lose a penny Bradford and Bingley’s future losses would have to be unthinkably huge.

The reason taxpayers are protected is that on Saturday the board of the Financial Services Authority, the City watchdog, ruled that Bradford and Bingley was unable to pass the test of being a viable bank, and therefore a claim was triggered on the insurance scheme for bank depositors, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme…

Depositors won’t lose a penny…

But for now it looks as though taxpayers at least are off the hook even though this is a very substantial nationalisation…

Is that the Authorised Version? It certainly sounds like the Treasury line. Taxpayers are often bank customers, Peston might have noted in passing.

For Peston, the senior servant of a government-financed broadcaster, the balance between evaluating what he’s ‘learned’ and repeating what he’s told must be an uncomfortable one.

But the blame for his predicament resides firmly with the people leaking this information – a government that is prepared to dispense important public information second hand.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Young October 7, 2008 at 09:35

Typical Peston. In bigging himself up, he does the BBC and the reputation of business journalism (and business itself, come to that) a great disservice. Peston must go…


Adrian Monck October 8, 2008 at 16:49

Richard. I’m afraid I rather admire Peston as a reporter. But I do think he finds himself conflicted when he’s obviously being leaked sensitive information from people who really ought to make public announcements.

Is it the price of success? Well, yes. But then is it a price a responsible, independent broadcaster ought to be paying? Discuss.


Richard Young October 9, 2008 at 10:27

My problem is that he’s just not a very good broadcaster. Most laypeople I know don’t think he’s explained what’s going on very clearly – and for me (I write about business and finance for a living) he’s clearly too constrained by the limits of the mass medium to offer any genuinely useful insights. His delivery is terrible and he always inserts himself into his reports. (By way of balance, lots of women seem to like him, although not for his journalism.)

But worst of all, he’s made the most disastrous compromise: in lieu of finding a way to explain tremendously complex subjects to people with limited understanding, he sensationalises the stories with provocative language. That might engage his viewers – but it’s simply encouraging them to panic, worsening the crisis. One might almost think he wanted to make the interbank lending lull (because that’s pretty much all it is, although I concede it’s exacerbating a necessary economic slowdown) worse to ensure he gets more screen time.

To address your specific issue, it’s a bit disappointing that he uses this kind of dubious government information in the way he does. Peston used to be part of the system – he ran Quest for Terry Smith over at Collins Stewart and he must have a bajillion City and business contacts from his time in the print media. There are lots of ways to both explain and contextualise this story without helping the government with its leaks. Factual reporting is, at the end of the day, a broadcaster’s job. It might be frustrating for him, but Peston is there to enlighten, not show off that he’s been chosen to receive a state version of the Friday night drop.


manmademound October 12, 2008 at 08:05

Robert Peston has found new ways of communicating issues around The Crunch


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