There aren’t many British politicians of note who haven’t been given the Robert Peston treatment at one time or another. Whether they’ve clashed with him on his weekly politics show or on ITV News, or previously when he worked for the BBC or Radio 4’s Today, they know this seasoned broadcaster isn’t shy of holding their feet to the fire.
The 63-year-old, now 40 years into his career as a journalist, says it’s essential we examine the morality of our leaders – now more than ever before.
“We’re embarrassed to talk about morality in public life,” he tells the Daily Express. “And to think about whether our leaders have the correct ethical values. We never debate this at all and say it’s just another politician lining their pocket or not telling us the truth.”
While Peston stresses there are still plenty of upstanding politicians in Westminster, he fears the best are a dying breed.
“One of the challenges is how to encourage more people with a profound sense of public service to go into politics and to stay the course,” he adds. “It’s difficult.”
It’s also difficult to hold some of these politicians to account. All too often, Peston admits, his interviewees make no attempt to answer his questions.
“It’s really frustrating. There’s this stupid game of pretending to answer but not answering,” he explains frankly.
“The number of people who say to me, ‘How do you stay sane, talking to these people who don’t answer questions?’ On the whole, I don’t get cross with them. I will point out to them politely that they’re not answering the question and then I have another go.”
The broadcaster believes that, by dodging legitimate questions, these politicians are undermining public trust in the Government.
“They’re making a mistake because you can’t take democracy for granted when all over the world democracy is in retreat. The more that politicians are seen to be evasive, the more at risk we are that the extremists will win.”
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Peston is sitting in a restaurant in a smart hotel on London’s Northumberland Avenue, close to the House of Commons from where he spends much of his time reporting.
Wearing a light blue suit, sipping on a Coke and munching olives, he’s promoting his latest novel, The Crash, a thriller about villainy at the heart of the British establishment during the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008.
The protagonist and hero, Gil Peck, is so strikingly similar to Peston himself, that you’d be forgiven for assuming the book is partly autobiographical.
Just like Peston, Peck is an experienced financial journalist from a Jewish family who cycles around London from appointment to appointment on his folding bicycle, and who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In the novel, Peck breaks a news story about a failing British bank called NewGate; in real life, during the very same period, Peston broke a news story about the failing British bank Northern Rock.”
“As a teenager, I suffered from pretty debilitating OCD and, as a kid, I definitely had ADHD,” he says of the shared character traits.
“When I was a kid, nobody talked about OCD or ADHD. You were just regarded as a slightly weird and eccentric kid. You just got on with it. Over the years I acquired strategies to manage these things.”
He says he purposefully modelled his lead character on himself in order to give his novel authenticity.
“One way was to write about worlds that I’ve lived and breathed,” he explains. “I could remember scenes I’d been in in real life and change them enough so they are authentic but not fact.
Another similarity between Peston and Peck is that both men are vicious in their criticism of the bankers who caused the financial crisis in the first place.
“Testosterone-fuelled narcissistic sociopaths… who run our lives, ruin our lives,” is how Peck describes them in the novel. And Peston doesn’t pull any punches when describing their real-life equivalents.
“I haven’t exactly been shy in criticising how these bankers took these ridiculously stupid risks, or the greed in some quarters, or the naivety in regulators in allowing this thing to happen under their noses,” he smiles.
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“It’s astonishing how many quite bad people get to become very, very powerful. A very small number [of bankers] ended up in prison. A very small number lost money. But mostly they got away with it, and it’s wrong they did.”
One of the more incisive financial minds on TV, Peston, rather alarmingly, suspects it won’t be long before we suffer another economic disaster, possibly as catastrophic as the last one.
“There is a risk we will see a crash sooner than we would like, I’m afraid,” he warns. “One thing causing me enormous anxiety is that we have moved relatively fast from 20 years of low interest rates and low inflation to a new era of high interest rates and relatively high inflation.
“We saw a handful of American banks get into trouble a few months ago. We saw the disastrous Truss mini-budget. When you get this seismic change, we are at risk.”
Peston has been reporting on politics and finance for virtually all his working life. Born in London in 1960, he attended a comprehensive school in north London, before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.
His father, Maurice Peston, was a Labour life peer, meaning Peston junior is entitled to call himself “The Honourable”, although he chooses not to.
After a brief stint as a stockbroker, he wrote on finance for magazines and newspapers before becoming political editor at the Financial Times.
Other newspaper roles followed but it was after being appointed the BBC’s business editor in 2005, with regular appearances on BBC News and the Today programme, that he finally became a household name.
During the global financial crisis, when bewildered Britons struggled to make sense of an economy spiralling out of control, he provided clear and calm analysis.
In 2016, he joined ITV News and launched his weekly political show Peston On Sunday, which later moved to its current slot on Wednesday evenings.
His wife Sian Busby, with whom he had a son, died of cancer in 2012. Nowadays he is in a relationship with author and former Sunday Telegraph journalist Charlotte Edwardes.
Throughout the years he has conducted more than his fair share of penetrating interviews. But there have been some terrible ones, too. He remembers a particularly uninspiring meeting with then prime minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street.
“Right now I’m a big fan of Theresa May, but this was literally the most annoying interview I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “It was something to do with Scottish independence and she came out with the same answer for every question, almost word for word.”
It was another prime minister, John Major, who provided Peston with one of his most heartwarming interviews, back in the 1990s, when the Tory boss was facing a leadership challenge.
A 10-year-old friend of the family had asked Peston to get him an autograph from the PM. “He worshipped John Major and I said: ‘Would you mind scribbling him an autograph?’” Peston remembers.
“He took out some headed notepaper and wrote a letter to him. Then he wrote another one to my stepson. At the time I was really touched.
I thought, ‘What a decent human being’. It was the only time I did an interview and came away thinking better about the world.”
Of all the political interviewers on TV, Peston has perhaps the most distinctive vocal delivery – slow, languid and drawn out at certain times, and rapid-fire at others.
One critic once described his intonation as “raggedy” and “querulous”. Another said he was, “excruciatingly hard to listen to”.
Yet another complained of his “strangulated diction”. Peston himself admits he has “a slightly eccentric” style, explaining how sometimes – perhaps because of his ADHD – his thoughts enter his mind faster than his ability to vocalise them.
“So it sounds like I may have a stutter,” he adds. “But I don’t.
He continues: “When I started at the BBC, I think my vocal delivery was really weird. I don’t know why. I was not a slick, polished lifetime broadcaster and a lot of viewers and listeners didn’t like it; they were used to something different.
“Fortunately, I then got some decent scoops and did some proper journalism and people gave me the benefit of the doubt that what I was saying was worth hearing.
They got used to my slightly weirder delivery and gave me time to learn how to do the job better, I suppose. These days, I very rarely get complaints about how I talk.”
Indeed, Peston has now become part of British TV furniture. Despite his slightly idiosyncratic delivery, his is a voice of reassurance in times of economic uncertainty.
Personally, he is very much looking forward to the next UK general election – almost certain to take place some time next year.
With a glint in his eye, he points out how it could well coincide with the US presidential elections. “It’s not impossible,” he says. “For news organisations it’s going to be a flipping nightmare because they’re both so important.”
Needless to say, if Donald Trump features in the election across the pond, British media will focus almost as much time and effort on US politics as they will on British politics.
“I am so looking forward to it,” Peston adds excitedly. “It’s a bit like if you’re a football commentator and the World Cup is on. This is our World Cup, so of course it’s exciting.”
With all his experience, presumably he can offer a fairly accurate prediction, at least of the UK result? “All I would say is, so much has gone wrong with the Tory party, you would assume Labour would form the next government.
“But this has been the most extraordinarily fast-changing period of my lifetime; anybody’s lifetime. You’re an idiot if you think that something can’t come out of left field which will immediately change our perceptions all over again.
“We just don’t know.”
- The Crash by Robert Peston (Zaffre, £16.99) is available to order from Express Bookshop. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
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