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Delivering the prestigious Hugh Cudlipp media lecture in 2020, Robert Peston claimed he had ‘tried to practise impartial journalism all my professional life’.
He did, however, have the grace to add: ‘I’ve f***** things up far too many times for comfort.’
And on that score, even by his own standards of tedious and pompous indignation, ITV’s political editor has excelled himself over the past few days.
In a series of increasingly hyperbolic tweets, Peston has accused the Prime Minister of ‘astonishing’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘laughable’ behaviour over legislation — unveiled on Monday — to override parts of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the issue driving a wedge between the province and mainland Britain.
Even arch-Remainer Tony Blair has been surprised by the EU’s intransigence on this subject and urged Brussels to compromise with London to avert a trade war.
But Peston has been having none of it.
‘Perhaps it is no surprise,’ he has sneered, ‘that in publishing its legal advice on the lawfulness of breaching the NI Protocol, the Government does not cite a single eminent lawyer in defence of its position. Johnson will not easily slough off the charge — made even by some of his MPs — that he is wilfully breaching international law, to the detriment of the UK’s standing.’
Unlike Peston’s verbose soliloquies on ITV, such nakedly partisan tweets are not policed by the broadcast regulator Ofcom. In the Wild West of social media, he is off the leash.
And this is causing ructions inside the Government.
Unlike Peston’s verbose soliloquies on ITV (pictured), his nakedly partisan tweets are not policed by the broadcast regulator Ofcom. In the Wild West of social media, he is off the leash
As a senior Whitehall source put it to me last night: ‘ITV and Ofcom have to understand that the public see no difference between what Peston says on TV and on what he says on social media. He is dragging ITV into a very bad place.’
It is a view echoed by another senior government figure, who tells me that several Tory MPs are now urging No 10 to boycott programmes associated with Peston because of his apparent bias. ‘Peston doesn’t think: he pontificates,’ says this source. ‘It’s time Ofcom looked again at some of his output.’
The Hon. Robert James Kenneth Peston — son of the late Labour peer Baron Peston — is one of television’s most identifiable political hacks. With his artfully floppy hair, unbuttoned shirts and bizarre whale-song vocal intonation, he has long divided opinion.
Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s foul-mouthed communications chief, used to mimic Peston’s habit of flicking his hair, and once scorned the young reporter for asking: ‘Another question from the Peston school of smart-a*** journalism.’
Peston cut his teeth as the political editor of the Financial Times, which has been a haven for Boris-bashers and unrepentant Remoaners in recent years.
At the FT, he forged a lasting friendship with the fanatically pro-EU Roland Rudd, the boss of City PR firm Finsbury who was so devastated by the Brexit vote he set up the campaign group Open Britain to demand a second poll delivering the result he preferred. At the FT, this unlikely pair were known as ‘The Pest and The Rat’.
My Whitehall source says: ‘In his latest sneering outpourings, Peston says that no eminent lawyer is quoted by the Government in the Northern Ireland legislation. But the entire Bill has been before Suella Braverman QC, the Attorney General, who studied law at Cambridge.’
It’s not just on Twitter that Peston’s apparent bias has shown itself.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured at a service to mark the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire
On Monday, continuing his fury about Brexit, the 62-year-old informed readers of ITV.com: ‘This is all about the religious conviction of his [Boris’s] ultra-Brexiteer wing, the European Research Group, that Brexit should have expelled the European Court of Justice from every inch of the UK.
‘In other words, all those tedious cancerous battles with the EU over sovereignty, that were supposed to be solved by Brexit, are still with us.
‘And they are set to cause the UK potentially serious economic harm when we can least afford it. Is this the fault of the bloomin’ Remainers who opposed leaving the EU? …
‘No, this mess can be laid at the door of those Brexiters who actually negotiated and agreed the terms of leaving the EU, and one politician in particular: the Prime Minister.’
Again, these nakedly partisan sentiments appear to drive a coach and horses through Ofcom’s code. This states that ‘news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality’.
Partygate is another subject on which Peston seems to have shown his true colours. Take his article in The Spectator — headlined ‘This is a constitutional crisis’ — published on April 12, the day it was confirmed Boris had been fined £50 for attending an impromptu birthday party at No 10 during lockdown.
In a typically clunky sentence, which he also pasted into Twitter, Peston wrote: ‘If Tory MPs unthinkingly keep [Boris] in office without a proper and public assessment of how Parliament was misled, because that is what suits them, and if they blithely ignore the Ministerial Code, then the charge will stick that this or any party with a big majority is simply an elected dictatorship, and the constitution means little or nothing.’
He added: ‘This is not just a slippery slope. It is the bottom of the slope.’
Quite apart from the overblown language (‘elected dictatorship’), the bias is again clear. Note how Peston shifts from the general (‘the charge will stick’) to the specific: ‘It is the bottom of the slope.’ That is clearly partisan.
Shouldn’t this, too, be a matter for Ofcom?
An analysis of Peston’s social media accounts has shown that, in 2022 alone, he has tweeted more than 100 times about ‘parties’ and ‘Partygate’. Since many of these tweets are inevitably in ‘threads’ that allow Peston to explain his views in greater detail, the true number is in fact higher.
Yet, strangely for a man so evidently fascinated by the subject of Partygate, Peston said nothing when the police announced they were taking no further action against Boris on May 19.
Nevertheless, just 24 hours later he was back, complaining: ‘In Downing Street there is a sense of injustice and considerable upset that the 126 Partygate fines have been levied disproportionately on women and junior officials.’
And what of the ongoing police investigation into ‘Beergate’ in Durham in April 2021 involving Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner? There have been only one or two tweets on this from the scrupulously ‘impartial’ Peston.
(For good measure, ITV News Editor Paul Brand mentioned Starmer’s lockdown-breaking beer and curry night four times in one Twitter thread, but has hammered out no fewer than 158 tweets about Partygate.)
Even on Ukraine — an issue on which most in the UK have firmly made up their minds — Peston has frequently taken the opportunity to attack Boris, calling an argument between the Prime Minister and his backbench critic Tobias Ellwood ‘absolutely jaw-dropping’ on Twitter.
He added: ‘[It] shows how little the Prime Minister and his advisers understood Putin and his ambitions.’ Boris, on video link, later became the first world leader to address the Ukraine Parliament. He’s been singled out for praise by Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky for being the first European leader to send arms to Kyiv.
In interviews last year to promote his novel about a scoop-hungry journalist, Peston said he has enjoyed exposing ‘pomposity and hypocrisy’ during his career. The irony seems to have been lost on him.