BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

In pursuit of Peston

The BBC's award-winning Business Editor Robert Peston broke the story of Northern Rock in crisis and has been blamed for causing the subsequent run on the bank. Newsnight's Mark Lobel travelled with Robert Peston as he went to Newcastle, the home of Northern Rock, to confront his critics.

Peston confronts Rock critics

Thursday, 12 February 2009: King's Cross, London, 08:49

Given his now celebrity status, I was half expecting Robert Peston to be mobbed by fans. But King's Cross station is quiet. Robert is hidden behind a thick scarf and glasses.

Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor
Robert Peston has won awards for his 2007 scoop on Northern Rock

We board the train and a heated debate breaks out about whether Robert can use the word "numpties" to describe managers at investment institutions on his widely-read and thoroughly scrutinized BBC blog.

His bosses allow him to keep the word in.

We arrive to find Newcastle completely covered in snow. Our taxi driver points out that it had been clear roads just an hour earlier. Is this an ominous sign?

Newcastle, 13:15

After a short stop at BBC Newcastle, Robert is taken to meet people affected by the fall of Northern Rock, a part-time Rock worker who had hoped to enter their graduate scheme before things turned ugly, a representative from the shareholders action group, and chief executive of the local chamber of commerce.

They accuse Robert of irresponsible reporting and ask him to say sorry, a theme that prevails throughout the day.

We hop in a taxi. Our driver David, a former full-time independent financial advisor, tells us he has just attended a friend's funeral.

His friend took his own life after being made redundant from his job at Northern Rock. Robert is visibly taken aback when he hears about the suicide.

But David says he's delighted to meet Robert. He is David's hero and David is a fan of Robert's bold and blunt style.

David praises him for outing mortgage deals that should never, he says, have been on the market.

Newcastle, 16:30

Back at BBC Newcastle, the hacks are sharpening their pencils.

Robert declares to listeners that he is an "arrogant" man. Arrogant, that is, to ignore his competitors and to never be coerced into breaking a story unless he is 100% convinced of its authenticity.

Northern Echo's business editor Chris Lloyd catches Robert having "a Miliband moment" with a banana and then, much to Robert's irritation, records him repeating Gordon Brown's now famous mistake of calling the current recession a "depression".

Robert swiftly corrects himself.

Defending his outing of Northern Rock to North East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham, Robert says it had been an "open secret in the City that Northern Rock had a problem".

"Why should it be the case that big institutions should know what's wrong and have the ability to take their money out, but more than a million savers should be kept in the dark…?" he asks.

As far back as 2003, Robert had written about concerns surrounding the way Northern Rock was running itself. He says that it was an accident waiting to happen, even though that made him look like a "plonker" at the time as the Rock's share price kept rising.

The Sage, Gateshead, 19:30

The crowds gather for the main event. Billed as Peston versus his critics, it is a BBC Politics Show special. Meanwhile, I circulate amongst the studio audience.

BBC business editor Robert Peston speaks to Commons Treasury Committee in the House of Commons, London
Peston faced questions from MPs about the media's role in the crisis

I meet Denis and Doreen Shannon who lost £60,000 from shares in the Rock and with it their retirement savings. Their remaining life savings are now collecting dust with interest rates wiped out.

Denis and Doreen tell me that they want to know if Robert had considered there might be a run on the bank before he broke the story, and wonder if he feels responsible for inflaming the situation with his "over-the-top" style of reporting.

During the fiery debate, presenter Richard Moss (who told me earlier that security guards were on hand) puts it to Robert that, in a week in which bankers are saying sorry, perhaps he should too.

But Robert does not capitulate. He says he does not think the retail run made any difference to what happened to the bank and shareholders' investments.

As a question is put to Robert, Doreen suddenly interrupts.

"… if somebody is in trouble and they fall down, the good Samaritan story, you can help them, help them up, or you can kick them in the balls and steal their watch. That's what happened to us. Somebody stole our watch when we were down and out and needed help."

Doreen adds, "You can edit that if you wish".

"I hope they don't," Robert replies.

Later, Robert tells the crowd that the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan should shoulder most blame, because he thought that financial innovations like packaging risk and distributing it were a good thing.

The Sage, Gateshead, 21:45

At the post-show drinks, Robert comes face to face with Denis and Doreen.

Peston confronts his critics

There are more angry words from Doreen and some pointed questions from Denis, but Robert's conclusion is clear.

"I am not going to persuade you, I can tell, that I behaved responsibly. I think I did behave responsibly."

Friday, 13 February 2009, BBC Newcastle, 07:30

During a marathon of radio phone-ins, Robert declares to listeners that he is an "arrogant" man. Arrogant, that is, to ignore his competitors and to never be coerced into breaking a story unless he is 100% convinced of its authenticity.

I have this tendency to ramble on a bit… If I look back on it...I suppose I could have been a bit more concise.

A valentine poem makes him chuckle as head of Northern Rock shareholders' group, Dennis Granger joins him in the radio studio to deliver this ditty: "Roses are red, violets are blue, the bank has said sorry, why don't you?"

But Robert does concede one regret.

Reviewing the broadcast when he first broke the news about the Rock's Bank of England loan, he says:

"I have this tendency to ramble on a bit… If I look back on it, and I don't want to be flippant about it, I suppose I could have been a bit more concise but that is just one of my many weaknesses."

He offers instant reaction as Northern Rock shareholders lose their appeal for compensation, and once again pre-empts the developments on a Northern Rock story, revealing that the shareholders will appeal.

The news is quickly confirmed. His prediction becomes the 10 o'clock news headline just as the phone-in ends.

As we head to the train station the sun comes out for the first time during our visit, adding fodder to conspiracy theories that Robert can move the weather as well as the markets.

Minutes before the train departs Robert is ambushed on Platform 3 by a local news crew who have been tipped off that he is in town. After seeking permission from his editor, Robert is handed to the pack one last time.

Newcastle to King's Cross, 10:30

On the train journey back to London, Robert reflects on his "fantastic" North-East adventure.

He says he has not been persuaded that he should have covered the Northern Rock story any differently, but that the trip has reminded him that his job is not just about numbers, but about "real people, real lives and the fabric of the country."

He tells me he was upset to see Doreen "really shattered" and her husband "who has always done the right thing all his working life… hasn't been imprudent …being doubly-punished".

"He is that living manifestation of this great paradox we are all living through, that people who have done the right thing, who haven't borrowed too much, who've got savings in the bank, they are being punished to bail-out those who borrowed too much. He's... a living, breathing example of the unfairness of the solution to the economic mess we're in."


With a quiet afternoon planned, Robert jumps off the train. But his Blackberry stirs with the news that Lloyds are about to announce that HBOS, which it has recently bought, has losses of £11bn, a record loss for a British bank.

Robert Peston
Peston worked as a stockbroker before becoming a journalist

It is bad news not only for the bank, but also for taxpayers, who have a 43% stake in the banking group.

Within an hour, Robert is breaking the story on the BBC News Channel at Television Centre, having blogged about it in the taxi on the journey there. Only three days earlier, the banking group's chief executive Eric Daniels had told MPs it was "strategically a very good acquisition" to buy HBOS.

That evening Robert is back on the BBC Ten O'Clock News reporting on another troubled financial institution that, he speculates, could end up as another wholly "state-owned bank".

Now, where have we heard that before?

Watch Mark Lobel's film Peston Heads To Newcastle on Newsnight on Wednesday, 18 February, 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Robert Peston vs his critics
12 Feb 09 |  Politics Show


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