"There's a proper market for proper journalism": an interview with Robert Peston

Robert Peston gives his views on what it's like for entry level broadcast journalists in the BBC - and elsewhere - today. This is one of a series of features on, and by, young journalists. 

Kathryn Dowling
16 February 2015

Photo: Jeff Overs/ BBC

To kick off a series of interviews ahead of the BBCs Charter Renewal, I was asked to explore the reality for wannabe journalists. 

I met with the BBC’s Robert Peston who spoke with brilliant honesty about his experiences. Robert has an instinctive sense of what it means to be a ‘jobbing hack’ so I was immediately drawn into a sort of working shorthand. 

His candid, no nonsense take on a world that three years after graduating has left me with more failed starts than I care to remember - and a bank balance that’s anything but – made it a twisted comfort to hear that whilst there are no shortcuts, the proverbial cup is far from empty:

“It’s an astonishing time to be a journalist … when I started out there was print TV and radio - that was it. Now we have the opportunity to get news out there 24/7 -  online, print, TV, radio ... that combination of so many different platforms. The fact news never sleeps means that you get stuff out there in real time; the interaction via social media, the convergence, the fact that no longer do these news organisations define themselves as being only audio, telly, words and print. Everyone does a bit of everything – it’s incredibly exciting.

But it’s challenging in the sense that I think all young journalists have to be able to communicate in all media. I write a lot, I do telly a lot, I do long and short form films. I do a lot of radio, a lot of stuff on traditional channels like BBC 1 and Radio 4. I also do stuff that’s only in audio and writing. I am available and in practice literally work round the clock.

The difficult side of all this is that traditional media are struggling to find a way of making money out of journalism. Because the BBC’s not supposed to have some tremendously unfair advantage, there’s a big onus on us to be as productive and efficient as possible, so people can’t accuse us of being feather bedded by the licence payer. So all of us - whether in the commercial arm or not at the BBC – are under intense pressure to produce more for less: more output for less money.

That may change as and when the method of charging for good news high quality news happens, when a tolerable revenue model gets created, and it’s in the process of being created. 

But we ain’t there yet. In this world of intense change, all organisations are struggling to do less with more and make an acceptable return. It makes it hard for individual journalists. Good journalism requires the time and space to research and really get underneath the story. That’s true both of investigations and best quality reporting. If you really want to get inside a subject, a lot of journos are finding they really haven’t got the time to do the leg work that’s necessary.

I think this is a relatively temporary phenomenon in the sense that I believe there’s a proper market for proper journalism. People will pay for it in some shape or form - organisations that invest in high quality journalism will ultimately be the ones that have a sustainable long term future and those that try to do as much as they can, as cheaply as possible and never mind the quality, will ultimately be the ones that don’t have a viable long term future.

The other thing that concerns me is that in all media - it’s true of the new generation of media and its increasingly true of traditional commercial media - there’s too much blurring of the lines between advertising and straight reporting. I’m concerned about the proliferation of this native advertising – this blurring of the lines for two reasons:

First is the way this signposting, this badging of the sponsor, is not always as clear on a website as it ought to be. I think a reader can miss the point when they’re reading, that this isn’t impartial journalism.

Secondly, I worry there’s a generation of young journalists that, as a result of doing paid-for sponsored articles, might not understand quite as religiously as they ought to that their job is to provide balanced impartial journalism – the truth as they see it.

Once you’re essentially into writing advertising copy it can sort of corrupt you - you can become vulnerable to all sorts of influences.  So I’m not comfortable about this blurring of the lines between, effectively, adverts and journalism.

Robert wasted no time blasting the notion that PR and journalism sharing a bed could ever be a good idea:

Any journo wanting to build a reputation should talk to the PR last not first. Even if you are a young journo without contacts you have to try and build up contacts. You have to work out who knows stuff - get to them, try and persuade them to talk to you.

I’m not saying all PRs are bad people, its just that PRs are paid to promote a particular line and I broadly take a view that it’s not that you don’t go to them, but you go to them when all else has failed in your attempts to get the information.

PRs have been around forever and ever and ever. They are not going to disappear. I’m not remotely saying there’s no role for them; it’s just that their role is the precise opposite of what the journalist’s role is.

This idea that some PRs have tried to promote in recent years -  that somehow, you know, PR and journalism are on the same side and we are going to have this lovely cooperative relationship and we just have to work out what readers and viewers and listeners want is just rubbish.

The fact is that PRs are paid by an interest to promote a particular line. Our view is to kick the tyres on any story: find out the objective truth and that means every time we can, going round the PR and not through the PR.

Is it harder for journalists coming through now than say, 20 years ago?

Most journalists coming in now are massively better qualified than journos when I came through in the early 80s. And you know, I’m afraid, it’s shameful to admit it – but I had no training, I had to learn on the job. And that was not untypical, lots of people left university and were lucky like me – I got a job on a magazine and that was where I learnt.

Some people got trained in those days, when they left school they joined a newspaper and were trained up essentially on an apprenticeship at 16 or 18 and rose right up to the top in some cases. Of course there were training schemes. The BBC had a training scheme. Lots of newspapers had a training scheme. Lots - not all, but many of them - have gone now.

The big difference is that pretty much everybody who goes into journalism today either studies it as a post grad course – acquiring lots of genuinely relevant practical skills in that way - or studies it as an undergraduate course. One or two of my friends did a grad course before they entered journalism when I started but they were a tiny minority; nobody studied journalism or got that sort of qualification at university. So I would broadly say that every one who comes into journalism now has a greater degree of practical knowledge and skills.

That said, there’s no substitute for doing. I can absolutely see that it’s frustrating if you’ve been at university and studied all of this - that you have to go in and learn what you can as quickly as you can in a pretty informal kind of way in many news organisations. But, I think, given the kind of training they’ve had, that shouldn’t really be such a disaster.

I don’t want to sound like some crusty old bore, you know: “it was much harder in our day sort of thing”, but when I came in, lots of us learned on the job and I think we learned pretty well.

I mean, it’s annoying not to be paid - there are zero hour contracts and all of this - I can absolutely see, it feels palpably unfair. I’m not commenting now on whether or not that’s a fair way of taking people on but you ought to be able to make something of it as a young person in a constructive sense.

The issue is the morality of big companies exploiting people in that way - essentially getting something for nothing. A lot of these young people are producing good stuff, effectively working for free or working on incredibly short term contracts, which means they have no security at a time when you have to start paying your way in the world.

The other thing worth reflecting on, quite apart from how difficult it is when you join an organisation these days that might try to exploit you, are the incredible opportunities to make your name just from the fact that anybody can write a good blog, anybody can go off and do some decent journalism: shove it up online free, then try and get some notice for it - try and get some traction for it by doing some clever stuff on social media.

None of that was available when I started out  - you could work for an established organisation or you could get together with a few mates and try and put out some sort of crappy little cheap magazine, which almost no one would ever see. Whereas now, there’s the potential to research something and do it properly and put it on social media: people can see this stuff.

Broadly, I would say there’s no excuse if you’re a wannabe journalist in just sitting at home wanting to be a journalist– you can do it in your bedroom.

Journalism is experiencing a time of rapid change and with technical change comes cultural change. With so much to juggle, perhaps the new generation of journalists feel less able to be bullish - to go in and get those career defining interviews, to take risks. Do you think we’ve seen the last of the Robert Peston style interview?

No, I don’t think so. I honestly don’t think so – I think there will always be both the demand for people to do the kind of thing I do and outlets for what people like me do.

The thing is, you have to have authority as a journalist – people have to trust you. And that means, I’m afraid, there are no short cuts in all of this. You’ve just got to immerse yourself in a subject that interests you. You’ve got to be the person who’s associated with that subject. You’ve got to acquire a personal brand.

If anything, I would say, actually, the opportunities to do what I do or, you know, Jon Snow does are greater than ever because we live in a world where the power of the corporate brand is waning - there’s just so much fragmentation and so much competition. The power of a journalist’s name and brand is on the rise and I think all young journalists need to make sure that when they do good journalism they personally get recognised for it and use all the means at their disposal to do that.

The onus is on all journalists, young and old to nurture, cherish, and develop their own personal brand alongside the brand of the organisation they’re working for. That’s the only way in this kind of world you can be confident to make a living: for people to know that when you have done a good bit of work it is your work.

The BBC has come in for a lot of stick about lack of equality - regarding women, age issues and ethnicity, for example – do you think that culture exists across the media?

The news organisations that are going to flourish are those that are completely blind to gender, race, background of all sorts because what you want is just the best talent. If the BBC is still a bit too skewed towards boring white men, to be perfectly honest, the BBC won’t prosper in the way that it could and should.

I think the BBC’s aware of that - there are issues, particularly around the area of reporting, about whether there’s enough diversity. On one level there probably isn’t enough diversity. But from what I can see, the BBC’s acutely aware of that and certainly, compared to most of the organisations I’ve worked for, everybody gets the right opportunities for their talents. 

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