Robert Peston speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival with Kishan Koria, the co-author of his new book Bust?Cambridge Literary Festival with permission for Varsity

Leading journalist and political commentator, Robert Peston, swishes into the Union for his talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival to discuss his new book on current affairs, Bust?: Saving the Economy, Democracy and Our Sanity. With a journalistic career stretching back to the 1980s, encompassing several media from print to broadcast, and working for Britain’s most eminent news services from the BBC to the Financial Times, Peston is an uncannily equipped commentator on changes in geopolitics over the last few decades. Having to dash off after his talk, but eager to give a student journo a chance, we reconvene later on in the week over Zoom.

Peston’s journalistic career has very much been shaped by the world-shifting events cited in his new book, including his coverage of the 2007/8 financial crisis for the BBC, for which he rose to national prominence. He explains that throughout his journalistic career, he has been driven by two key factors: “to try and make sense of what has become a more and more chaotic world” and “being obsessed with getting scoops and doing investigations.”

"we were only 15 years ago becoming a more tolerant society [...] and we’ve gone massively into reverse"

However, he remarks that whilst his drive has remained constant, “the technological changes over that period have been extraordinary”. He reminisces about the now almost alien experience in the early days of X (then Twitter) when “you could actually have quite intelligent and informative and also semi-educational conversations with people”, and even goes to the effort to try and explain Tipp-Ex to me, for fear that it may be too outdated for someone of my generation. However, when discussing the dangers of social media as a news source, Peston jokingly reassures me that “I think that I’m slightly more optimistic than you are”. In his current role as political editor of ITV News, he explains how they have adapted to this challenge: “we repackage everything that we do to make it accessible on pretty much every platform.” Referencing his own podcast The Rest Is Money – a new addition to Goalhanger’s widely popular The Rest Is series — as an example, Peston also notes that “there’s a huge growth at the moment in what you might call longform journalism […] and that’s really encouraging. People have a real thirst for knowledge.”

Since the age of 24, Peston has actively chosen not to be a member of a political party: “I just took the view that it would be wrong […] because everything that I did would be seen by readers or viewers through that prism, and for the kind of journalism I wanted to do it was important to build up trust, and that requires me to be as impartial as I possibly could be.” As a writer of political thrillers and non-fiction works, however, I ask whether he thinks this jeopardises his aim. He clarifies his interpretation of impartiality: “impartiality is not about resisting the temptation to have a view, it is about rooting views in empirical work and immersing yourself in the issues, digging out the evidence and then saying this is what flows from that evidence […] and that’s what I do in the books.” He cites his journalism during the EU referendum as an example: “I did say every night on ITV, if we leave the European Union we’re going to be poorer, and I was able to say that without breaching partiality guidelines because […] I explained the economics behind it […] Some people would assume that is not impartial journalism, but that is indeed the core of impartial journalism in my view.”

“I am somebody who doesn’t give up”

Brexit is a key discussion point in Bust?, which Peston sees as a symptom of the growing intolerance in our society: “we were only 15 years ago becoming a more tolerant society based on mutual understanding, and we’ve gone massively into reverse.” He summarises the effect Brexit has had on the UK’s global position: “we haven’t got the voice that we used to have. We were before Brexit a disproportionately influential country […] that’s not to say we’re now irrelevant, people listen to us, but they don’t listen to us in the way that they did.”

However, despite our system going ‘bust’, Peston remains optimistic that there are solutions to these problems, asserting that “I am somebody who doesn’t give up”. He explains the root of many of our current problems: “we have a culture in this country of either we are the winner or we are nothing […] one of the most pernicious ideas of the last 20-odd years was this awful phrase, ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’, as though somehow plucky Britain won the World Wars on its own, and that is just a lie […] the lesson of the World Wars is we are stronger in partnership with other nations and we are also stronger when we learn.” In a nutshell: “British exceptionalism particularly today is a pernicious idea”. Instead, Peston proposes that we need “to set our targets in a more realistic way”, as “coming second, coming third, can indeed be a fantastic achievement if it allows you to create a society in which people feel they have hope and people are being lifted up.”

“I’m a great believer in the intrinsic abilities of people”

Another of Peston’s solutions is to increase youth engagement in politics, stressing how important it is that young people “don’t become jaded and despondent.” He elaborates: “if any of us who think that the current generation of leaders is failing, the lesson of that is using democracy to replace them. It’s not to despair, it’s not to say it’s all hopeless, it’s to recognise that only we have the power to change it.”

Peston is passionate about improving opportunities for young people. He founded Speakers for Schools in 2010, the largest social mobility charity in the UK that provides inspirational speaker events and work experience opportunities to state school students. A descendent of Jewish immigrants and son of Lord Maurice Peston – the Labour life peer and leading economist who fought against social injustice – Peston credits his “own family’s life story as a big motivator for one of the burning passions of my life, which is to try and improve social mobility and equal opportunity.”

Having been educated at a state comprehensive school himself, Peston tells me that at the start of his journalistic fame “I got invitations to go and speak in schools, but the invitations came from the fee paying, very privileged schools […] and I wasn’t getting invited to go and speak in the kind of school who made me who I am”. After discovering the main reasons why state schools were less likely to get in touch – that “the teachers were ludicrously busy” and that if they tried to reach out “they would be palmed off to agents who would try and charge the schools significant sums of money” – Peston explains Speakers for Schools’ origin: “I rang probably around one hundred plus eminent people asking if they would give these talks to state schools for free […] and only one of those people didn’t want to do it.” Peston reflects, “certainly of all the ventures that I have been involved in setting up, Speakers for Schools is the thing that I’m proudest of.”

“We’re all sad, middle-aged dads and we wanted to have a bit of fun”

Turning to discuss Oxbridge’s efforts to improve their state school intake (Peston himself attended Oxford), he affirms that “they’re definitely doing better than they were.” Asserting that “I’m a great believer in the intrinsic abilities of people”, Peston is clear that these institutions carry a social responsibility: “I think successful societies need centres of excellence […] but the point about centres of excellence is they should not become barriers to social mobility. They should become engines of social mobility, and that requires those centres of excellence to be much more creative and imaginative in terms of making sure that they recruit talent wherever it is to be found.”


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A more recent project of Peston’s is being the lead singer of his rock cover band, Centrist Dad, whose members also include the former Labour MP Ed Balls on drums. Confessing that the band’s formation came from “deciding we’re all sad, middle-aged dads and we wanted to have a bit of fun”, they were not expecting their performance at a North London street festival, with former Labour leader Ed Miliband cheering them on, to become so public.

Querying whether another gig is on the cards, Peston assures me, “we’re still rehearsing, we’re still having fun, and I’m sure we’ll do another gig at some point.” With a laugh, he exclaims, “You’re all invited!”