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March 9, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:01am

Robert Peston says he was ‘not spun’ over hospital ‘punch’ error and interviewing May was ‘nightmare’

By Freddy Mayhew

Robert Peston has said he was “not spun” by Dominic Cummings in wrongly claiming a Labour activist had hit a Tory adviser in a fracas during the general election campaign.

The ITV political editor tweeted, along with a number of other political journalists, that an adviser to Matt Hancock had been “whacked in the face by a protestor” outside a Leeds hospital in December.

He was later forced to correct the claim, and apologised, after footage emerged online which showed the alleged clash had been an accident. Peston said he had been briefed “by senior Tories”.

He took the opportunity to “clear up a few things” about the error in delivering the annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture at City University on Friday.

“I was not spun by [Boris Johnson’s chief advisor] Cummings or a Tory official about this,” said Peston. “Nor did I allege Labour’s involvement in the fracas in my tweet.

“Having read about the fracas on Twitter, I rang two people who were eye witnesses who both told me that the advisor had – in the words of one – been ‘lamped’.

“Subsequently a film emerged that showed that the advisor had been knocked not very hard in the face by accident, not deliberately. So I took down the tweet and then put up another tweet apologising for my mistake.

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“I was not under pressure from ITV to make the correction. I simply said sorry because that is what I would always do, since I am well aware I do not have privileged access to the truth.

“This was a routine cock-up, not a conspiracy – and it wasn’t the first or last such boo-boo I’ll make.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shared a screengrab of Peston’s original tweet along with the same error by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, ITV’s Paul Brand and the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn, along with the words: “This is what media bias looks like.”

“Unsurprisingly I thought this was offensive and wrong,” said Peston of Corbyn’s tweet. He said it was important that the correction to his initial error, which he later deleted, was “made instantaneously”.

Peston said the response to “embarrassing evidence of our incomplete knowledge” is what distinguishes an “impartial news journalist” from a “propagator of fake news”.

His lecture, organised by the London Press Club and sponsored by the Mirror, was on the theme of impartial news and whether it can survive.

Impartial journalism ‘is what we aspire to’

Peston said impartial journalism “should not be bland” and “is not journalism devoid of views”.

“It is journalism that expresses a view – that this or that is likely to happen, that this or that politician is more likely to be right about a certain important issue – based on evidence, but never on political affiliation, or religious leanings, or commercial interests or prejudice,” he said.

But, he said, impartial journalism is a standard that no individual journalist can attain, rather “it is what we aspire to,” he said. “It conditions what we research, how we weigh the evidence, what we say and how we say it.”

The former business journalist said that as a cub reporter in the 1980s the Daily Mail tried to recruit him and that one of the perks of the job being offered was a discount price on new shares at stockbroking firms the Mail had “close relationships with”, in “reward for bullish coverage”.

“I made my excuses and left, as they say. But that kind of incestuous relationship between hacks, brokers and bankers was rife at the time, and – thank goodness – has largely been swept away,” he said.

Lobby journalism

Peston said “only the media can effectively hold [Boris Johnson] and his administration to account” at a time when the Prime Minister has a sizeable majority and has “purged dissenters from his own ranks”.

“It is not a party political point to wish that Labour would get its act together and behave as an effective opposition,” he added.

Peston said moving the twice-daily government briefings with the Lobby – the group of political journalists based at Westminster – from Parliament to Downing Street was “important symbolism” for the Government.

Lobby journalists staged a walkout last month after attempts by the Government to only brief select journalists, banning others.

“An important question is whether the continued existence of a cadre of political lobby journalists – endowed with privileges by parliament, living cheek by jowl with each other in a rook’s nest at the top of the Palace of Westminster – helps or hinders trust in the media, in this era of institutional mistrust,” said Peston.

“To be clear, there is no longer explicit collusion between hacks, and there is much less hole-and-corner secrecy.

“When I first became a lobby member in 1994, it was against the rules to even tell your girlfriend about the twice daily meetings with the prime minister’s spokesman, let alone discuss it in a public forum. And the room in which we interrogated the PM’s spokesman was also used by the lobby branch of the freemasons.

“t was an era where ministers divulged tidbits to their journalistic chums on the golf course. And where ministers, especially Tory ones, assumed that they could order a bottle of champagne on the FT’s account before I even arrived. None of this was healthy.”

Amid calls to televise Lobby briefings, Peston said there was a danger that they could become “devoid of materially interesting information”.

“This would deliver an incentive to ministers and officials to do more briefing of selected journalists offline and in secret, which could provide more, rather than fewer, opportunities for the government to fly kites and test out possible policies with impunity.

“It is tricky and delicate setting the calibration in a relationship between media and government or power that forces government to take responsibility for its words and yet doesn’t turn off the taps of useful information.”

Interviewing Theresa May was a ‘nightmare’

Answering questions from the audience later in the evening, Peston revealed that interviewing Theresa May as Prime Minister “was a nightmare”.

“Whatever you asked her she would simply trot out what [she had agreed] with her advisors that she wanted to say,” he said.

“Whenever the opportunity came up to interview the Prime Minister, my heart slightly sank actually.”

Read Peston’s speech in full.

Picture: Daily Mirror/David Dyson

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