Robert Peston: Round the clock news has watered down the high of scooping rivals

Working in a 24/7 news environment has made the highs of breaking major stories less intense, according to BBC economics editor Robert Peston.

The journalist gave the James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University, London, last night.

He told the audience of the rush in chasing a good story and the knowledge that his rivals would be receiving a good “bollocking” the moment the first edition was published.

“I was reminded of this last week, when immersed in the extraordinary soap opera of Rev Flowers and the Co-op – whose origin was a pretty good scoop in the Mail on Sunday. The high of chasing a story and getting to the front of it has consistently been pretty intense.

“But it has been changed by the advent of the 24/7, multi-platform, digital and social media world. To be clear, in the inky print world of the 1990s, the pleasure of putting out an exclusive at 10 or so in the evening, and knowing newsdesks would at that instant be bollocking my peers and rivals for missing the story, well there was nothing quite like it. Childish? Staggeringly so. Fun? Oh my God, yes.”

Peston said in the past, after a big story he would be on a high for several days. “But technology has changed the nature of the drug. On a big story today, you can be high – at a lower level of intensity – pretty much the whole time. Because you are always 'on', always able to get the story out – in audio, in video, in blogs, on social media, every waking minute of the day.

“You get a break in the story? Out it goes – on Twitter, which is the stake in the ground that you got there first, on BBC News, in a blog. And, for the first time in our history, there is a real-time feedback loop: people on Twitter, or in blog comments, or in emails immediately telling you what they think, and, quite often, providing valuable information or ideas to help develop the story.”

Peston said the main advantage of the new news environment is a journalist can dominate the story by filing constant updates.

“I first recognised this after I broke the story of Northern Rock's collapse in September 2007. Probably because I faced so much criticism from the establishment for doing what I considered to be the essence of my job – which is giving people information, news that is materially important to their lives – I was then relentless in making sure I was ahead of the game in reporting the impact of the meltdown of markets and banks on our economy, on the global economy, on people's livelihoods.

“At the heart of what motivated me were a couple of things: I wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of the idea that I was somehow to blame for the mess we were in, that I was supposedly on some kind of insane mission to talk down the economy and ruin sound British banks. It was a matter of some pride to me – ghastly vanity again – to draw back the veil on the deeply flawed structure of the financial system.

“And I wanted to explain what had gone wrong in the boom years to the BBC's millions of viewers, listeners and readers – in the hope that there would then be the kind of national debate that would lead to serious structural reforms of economy and financial system. It is for another occasion to debate whether that hope was a bit naïve.”

Peston said that he has been addicted to journalism for his entire career and hoped this dependency has benefited his readers and viewers in understanding the stories he has worked on.

However, on the evening he broke the story of the collapse of Northern Rock and the Bank of England bailout, a senior BBC editor asked him minutes before going live on the Ten O’Clock News whether it was really a story.

Peston said what makes him a particularly effective journalist is the fact he trained on Fleet Street and not within the BBC.

However he said he objects when newspapers promote the commercial interests of their owners or show the political bias of the editor.

Despite this, he opposes the Government’s plan for press regulation which he fears will “sanitise” the press.

However, Peston slammed the Daily Mail for revealing that his wife Sian Busby had a lung removed in a bid to battle cancer.

He said the Mail also reported in January 2008 that she had been given the all-clear from lung cancer when this was not true.

Peston said he and his wife, who later died, did not want their two school-aged children to discover the extent of her illness.

“So for both of us, the really maddening thing about that piece was that the Mail ran the story without bothering to give us any advance warning or to check whether it was appropriate. As it happens, Sian was a Daily Mail reader – in part because (curses) she liked the way it was so rude about people like me, but mostly because of the daily Scrabble puzzle – and the first we knew of this story was when she opened the paper at breakfast.

"There was no public interest justification for the disclosure of Sian's serious illness. It had no bearing on whether I was fit and proper to be in a licence-fee funded job. So surely it would have been reasonable to ask if we wanted this very private element of our lives shouted to the world. My instinct was to complain to the Mail and its editors. Sian asked me not to, because she was frail and did not want the added stress of seeing me go to war with a powerful newspaper. So the Mail got away with it. As it often does.”

However, despite this intrusion into their private life, Peston’s wife continued to read the Daily Mail.

Click here for the full text of the lecture. 

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