Two hours and 46 minutes after our Teams meeting was scheduled to begin, Robert Peston breaks his silence with a Whatsapp message.
“God. How embarrassing. I got caught up in a story and forgot to look at my diary. I am free now if any good. Or we can postpone. Please forgive!”
When our rearranged call starts 20 minutes later, Peston sounds flustered. “I’m so sorry,” he says again. “I just got completely into a different space.”
What was the story, I ask. “Oh, it’s just all this flippin’ sleaze stuff. Sleaze. Let’s just call it sleaze. The sleaze stuff. You know what I’m talking about.”
Tardiness excused, Peston still makes for a challenging interviewee. He doesn’t do straightforward answers. There aren’t enough characters on a keyboard to accurately reflect his famously idiosyncratic speaking style. And as for my attempt at a quickfire question round…
Favourite film? “Oh, God. Uhh. Okay. Bffft… Can I have two?” Favourite magazine? “Oh, Christ. Kill me now. Uuhmmmm… Pass… Am I allowed to have three? I’ll have three.” (Full audio below.)
‘I work fucking hard’
The Pest, as he is known to many of his peers, is a giant of modern British journalism.
He started his career at Investors’ Chronicle in 1983 (via Balliol College, Oxford, and a stockbroking firm where he was “bored out of my mind”). From there, he worked his way up Fleet Street, working in business and politics roles across the Independent, Independent on Sunday, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph.
Peston swapped print for TV in 2005 when he was named business editor of the BBC. In this role, his coverage of Northern Rock and the financial crisis made him a household name.
He later became economics editor of the BBC, but left the corporation in early 2016 to become ITV’s political editor.
Today, the 61-year-old is one of the UK’s best known and respected journalists. He’s a mainstay on ITV’s flagship news shows. He has his own (self-titled) show. And he has more than a million Twitter followers.
But even now Peston admits to feeling insecure about his standing.
“I’m never relaxed,” he says. “Like many journalists, I’m terrified that if I don’t get the next story, I’ll be out of a job.”
Some green-eyed contemporaries might look at the CV of Peston – the son of Lord Peston, a renowned economist and Labour life peer – and conclude that he was always destined for the top. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“No, not at all,” he says. “Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing – you might have to ask the people who are closest to me – but one of the things about being obsessive is I work fucking hard. I am very driven to try and make the best of whatever job I’m doing.”
After we’ve spoken, I fact-check Peston’s self-assessment with his partner, Charlotte Edwardes, a freelance journalist who writes for the Times Magazine and was recently shortlisted for interviewer of the year at the British Journalism Awards.
Does Peston work too hard? “Um, I suppose. But he’s miserable if he’s not working so we’re happy for him to get on with it.
“He did take up a lot of space when he was working from home, though. And he was very loud when he was broadcasting from the sitting room, so he now has a special shed in the garden called New Broadcasting Hut where he can shout into Zoom and we can’t hear him.”
And does he need to learn to relax more? “I’m not sure he does. He’s pretty laid back, unless it’s weird stuff he obsesses about like having at least four spare toothpastes, or rows of extra bleach.
“He definitely has stock-piling tendencies. I knew the pandemic was serious when I opened the fridge to find eight packets of butter. I asked him whether we would be smearing it on ourselves to keep warm. Oh, and washing his hands – you’ve never seen someone so excited by the government’s mandate to spend hours at a basin singing.”
The Whistleblower: ‘Just to be clear, it’s not an autobiography’
On top of his day job at ITV, Peston is now a fledgling novelist. The Whistleblower, a lockdown project started last year, was published in September and has attracted rave reviews from Fleet Street.
Set around the 1997 general election, the book’s protagonist is Gil Peck, the son of a renowned left-leaning economist. Peck is the scoop-hungry, OCD-suffering, drug-taking political editor of the Financial Chronicle (the FC).
Peston, who was political editor of the FT in 1997, acknowledges that he has a fair bit in common with his main character – “but, just to be clear, it’s not an autobiography”.
“Certainly Gil is a pretty obsessive character. That sort of OCD is something I’ve suffered from all my life. It’s now much more under control than it was when I was a teenager or younger adult. But you never completely get over it. It’s always sort of with you.
“I’ve always been very driven. Very obsessive about landing a story… I think I have mellowed a bit over the years, but I was obsessed with getting scoops and splashes and that kind of stuff.”
These days, Peston claims to be over his scoop addiction (though the three-hour delay to this interview while he was hunting down political sleaze suggests otherwise).
“When I was young, that was the be-all and end-all. But that’s not really the be-all and end-all now.
“Honestly, the thing that I care about most is trying to understand the world. And trying then to explain it in a way that helps people who watch my show or watch ITV News… So that they can make the decisions that matter to them about their lives.”
Hacking, drugs, PIs and the ‘loss of a moral compass’ – Fleet Street in the 90s
In his book, Peston portrays 1990s Fleet Street as a lawless land of private detectives, phone hacking, bribery and illegal substances. Peston’s main character, Peck, self-medicates with alcohol and cocaine.
“I didn’t do that,” says Peston. “Nonetheless, I witnessed many journalists – some of them very senior journalists – who did precisely that.
“They would be in places like the Groucho until five in the morning and then be back in the writer’s or editor’s chair a couple of hours later.
“And it’s not surprising, when you are in a sense so driven by adrenaline and substances of various sorts, that rules were broken and standards fell. Because in that euphoric atmosphere, the difference between right and wrong got blurred.”
Mixed with euphoria, says Peston, was “enormous competitive pressure”. And he now believes this led to a “breakdown – the loss to an extent – of a moral compass”.
“And it meant, as we now know, all sorts of lines were crossed. Where journalists and papers engaged in all sorts of practices that we now think of as being utterly reprehensible.”
Peston says he was “slightly naive” about the widespread nature of phone hacking during his days on Fleet Street. “When I subsequently learnt the full extent of what went on, I think like many people I found it jaw-dropping.”
But he adds that “anybody at any kind of level on what we used to call Fleet Street was aware that all sorts of techniques were being used that shouldn’t have been used.
“You’ll know that lots of papers got hold of private bank details, phone records and all the rest of it. And it is very difficult to get hold of these things, shall we say, in a way that is wholly legitimate.
“You will struggle to find a newspaper where there weren’t some journalists who were employing techniques that these days we would definitely frown upon. Including the use of private eyes.”
Did Peston ever pay for the services of a private investigator?
Peston’s answer, in short, is no. His answer, in full, is:
“Err. So I – there were occasions where I ran various teams at various points. And there were occasions where I was asked to authorise the use of private investigators.
“I didn’t ever authorise the use of private investigators because I did take quite a moralising view that our customers, readers, assumed that what they were reading was the work of journalists, not the work of private investigators.
“So I have never – certainly, it sounds like weasel words, but I’m pretty sure I have never sanctioned a payment to a private investigator. I’m 99.99% – actually, I am sure. I’m sure I never sanctioned a payment to a private investigator. But was I asked regularly by people who worked for me to do that? Yes, I was.”
Posh? ‘I’m thoroughly middle-class and very privileged’
Peston’s critique of the British journalism industry doesn’t quite end there.
Through the voice of Peck, he suggests there would be “riots on the street” if members of the general public became aware of the “close social, educational and familial connections between politicians, media and the City”.
Class diversity is an issue close to Peston’s heart. In 2010, he set up Speakers for Schools, a charity that aims to help “level the playing field between state schools and fee-paying schools”.
He believes diversity has improved in journalism since the early years of his career, when it was dominated by the “very posh” and “white men”. But, he adds, the issue remains.
“If I look around ITV and ITV News, it’s way more diverse than [Fleet Street in the 1980s and 1990s],” he says. “Way more women, lots of people from ethnic minorities, different sexualities, different genders – all fantastic.
“But quite a lot of them, nonetheless – not all, but quite a lot of them – still come from quite privileged, middle-class backgrounds. So class, school, still matters quite a lot.
“And we’ve just got to get to a situation where those sorts of innate advantages – of just whether your parents happen to be better off or not – don’t determine as much as they currently determine. Social mobility is not what it should be.”
Although Maurice Peston became a member of the House of Lords, his son Robert attended a state school in North London. So, does he consider himself to be posh?
“Well, I come from a very privileged background – yeah, sure,” says Peston. “I’m very pleased I went to a comprehensive because it gave me a different outlook on the world. It’s one of the reasons I set up Speakers for Schools.”
He adds: “I came from a family where there’s been enormous social mobility. Many of my Jewish relations from the older generations were small business people or worked with their hands. These were not wealthy people. Tailors and cab drivers and the rest.
“So there was amazing social mobility because my dad ends up in the House of Lords. But once my dad, who’s a brilliant academic, ends up in the House of Lords, I think I’ve got to accept that I’m a very privileged person from a very middle-class background.
“So whether I’d use the word posh about me – other people can decide whether that’s the case – I came from a home where there were books everywhere and my parents wanted me to get on. And so in that sense, yes, I’m thoroughly middle-class and very privileged.”
‘I’m sorry I waffle on’
So, what next for Peston? He has been identified by some as an outside bet to replace Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s political editor. But he rules it out.
“Oh, gawd knows,” is his response when I ask who might succeed Kuenssberg, who is rumoured to be on her way out. “It’s not going to be me because I have zero interest in doing it.”
Why? “Because I love what I do at the moment. So why would I want to go somewhere else?”
By this stage of the interview, I’ve gone over my allotted time with Peston. But, given his late arrival, I feel no shame in imposing a round of quickfire questions upon him.
Predictably, the ‘quickfire’ part doesn’t quite work out. The audio clip above contains Peston’s answers in full, but for brevity’s sake:
Favourite film? The Graduate and Ghostbusters
Favourite TV show (apart from your own)? Seinfeld
Favourite newspaper? The FT
Favourite magazine? The Spectator, Economist and New Yorker
Favourite musician or band? The Beatles
Favourite editor? Former FT editor Richard Lambert
Favourite new technology? “I’ve had a go on our youngest’s VR headset, and I hate it”
What gives you sleepless nights? “Becoming irrelevant”
Career high point? Launching Speakers for Schools
Career low point? “I don’t think I’ve really had a lowest point”
Your three dream dinner party guests? Beethoven, Fred Astaire and Paul Simon.
“I’m sorry I waffle on,” says Peston as we say our goodbyes. “You’re going to have terrible trouble listening to that back. So, many apologies.
“And I’m so sorry about earlier. I’m a total wanker sometimes.”
Photo credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images