"My job is to draw back the veil": Robert Peston responds to Peter Oborne

"In politics, democracy is served when we know how those in power think and speak," says ITV's political editor.

Robert Peston cropped
Robert Peston
22 October 2019, 11.11am
Robert Peston
Rich Hayward. Some rights reserved.

This article is a response to 'British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine' by Peter Oborne.

The issue of anonymous briefings by senior officials is an important one, but not new. Jill Rutter won't mind me reminding her that her life as the director of communications at the Treasury was made a misery in 1997 after Labour's landslide by the systematic private briefings to journalists made by Gordon Brown's senior aides, Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls.

I was on the receiving end of such briefings, as political editor of the Financial Times at the time. And the role of the conscientious political reporter then and now has been to distinguish palpable nonsense spouted by aides from information that genuinely represents the policy of the government. And then to relay that information with the maximum transparency permitted under conventions that govern political reporting in the UK – which may arguably be unfit for purpose, but are what they are.

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For the avoidance of doubt, when I say "a senior government source" or "a senior Downing Street source", I always mean someone who speaks with authority on behalf of the prime minister or government. There are only a handful of people in that position.

There have been times when those individuals have told me stuff which they could not speak with authority about. And on those occasions I ignore them. But when they tell me stuff that relates to the future actions of the PM, whose actions they are shaping, it would be absurd to withhold that information from those who follow me on social media, or watch me on the TV, or read my blogs. Though I only ever relay it with the maximum transparency about its provenance, within the conventions (that governed much of Peter Oborne's career too).

To make a unilateral decision not to publish would have been to treat British people with contempt

As for the tweet on 25 September which troubles Peter, that followed hard on the heels of another one by me about the Attorney General saying Johnson would "abide by the Benn Act". I approached Downing Street for a reaction, and then tweeted what the official told me. Nothing I published endorsed what the official said, or indeed implied that the revealed tactics would be effective

And what is highly relevant is that Johnson did indeed write the second letter to which I refer in the tweet. And only yesterday I spoke with one of the leading legal protagonists in the case, on my show 'Peston', about whether Johnson saying in that second letter that he does not want Brexit delay represents a breach of the spirit of the Benn Act. Joanna Cherry, whom I respect, agreed there was indeed such an issue.

To make a unilateral decision not to publish would have been to treat British people with contempt, to calculate they lack the intelligence or insight to frame the information appropriately.

Of course I speak all the time to lawyers on both sides of this argument. In fact I am gripped by the jurisprudence of all this. But for Peter to imbue his anonymous "legal experts" with Mosaic wisdom and authority is redolent of a callowness that is out of character.

To be clear, I have never in recent weeks and months said anything to suggest that the PM's response to the Benn Act would 1) be effective, 2) be appropriate for someone holding his high office. If Peter and OpenDemocracy have the time and energy, please read through the tens of thousands of words I have broadcast and written about all of this.

And the notion that I was in any way applauding the PM by saying he was "sticking two fingers up" to the law is literally bonkers.

Apart from anything else, it is a political decision by the EU to consider the request for a Brexit delay, despite hearing from the PM that he does not want a delay. It is not a legal decision. This matters. And it would have been a political decision even if Johnson said he was desperate for a Brexit delay.

I have a profound sense of deja vu about all of this. I was barraged with complaints that I should keep my mouth shut in 2007 and 2008 when revealing that our banks are bust, because it was felt British people would panic because they lacked the intelligence to understand what I was saying. I regarded such criticism as contemptible and my position has not changed.

In politics, democracy is served when we know how those in power think and speak. My job is to draw back the veil as far as I can, so that citizens can judge them.

Finally, I would agree with Peter and Jill that it is timely to have a debate on whether much more of government should go on the record, to reduce possible ambiguity about the provenance and weight of semi-anonymous briefings. I have always been a champion for maximum openness in the workings of government and all important institutions, and remain so.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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