Celebrity journalists as thought leaders: The case of Robert Peston

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The Australian journalist Mark Day argues that celebrity journalists today follow far earlier examples. We examine the cases of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill. Parallels with Robert Peston’s role in the Northern Rock drama can be made

Mark Day is the doyen of Australian journalists. He recently raised concerns about the rise of the celebrity journalist, citing cases from Australia, from Rupert Murdoch’s father at Gallipoli to the notorious New York night club story which did the aspirant political leader Kevin Rudd no harm at all. Day suggests TV journalism is continuing the tradition of the celebrity journalist.

It was Mr Day’s reassuringly sage and bewhiskered visage which first grabbed my interest. This, I thought, is the face of someone who speaks with the wisdom of the ages. A role model more callow bloggers. Perhaps it was his headline: Journalists become the news.

Day has his say

Mark Day argues that journalists have always been tempted by celebrity as a route to career success. He cites the example of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and war correspondent at Gallipoli, as well as confidant of the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Murdoch ’s capacity to become part of the story is famously illustrated in an incident in which he was charged with delivering a letter from Gallipoli to authorities in London. When ‘Intercepted and relieved of his letter’ he wrote his own extended version, handed it over, when it appeared to have had some influence on British understanding of the unfolding military disaster.

Another time, another land. He might have mentioned the rise of Winston Churchill, already famed as war correspondent, and by then heavily involved in the Gallipoli campaign.

We can stretch things even further in considering the merging of journalism and social comment. Take Charles Dickens, for example, who would have been a great TV personality born a century later.

In these enlightened times

Has much changed from the days of Dickens? Not a lot, according to Day. He gives various contemporary examples from political life in Australia. One interesting one is the incident in New York some months ago, involving the youthful Kevin Rudd, at the time a wannabe Prime Minister. The story was internationally covered.

According to The Daily Telegraph

KEVIN Rudd’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have been rocked by a visit to a New York strip club where he was warned against inappropriate behaviour during a drunken night while representing Australia at the United Nations. Mr Rudd yesterday issued a statement to The Sunday Telegraph, confirming he went to the club. But he said he could not recall what happened at the night spot because he had “had too much to drink”.

Rudd’s embarrassment was short-lived. He went on to victory a few months later.

Day introduces a further twist to the tale suggesting that the incident which had occurred four years earlier, had been rather sleazily treated by the journalists, who had persuaded the notoriously high-minded Rudd to loosen up a bit. But that’s another story. He concludes that the journalist as part of the story is inevitable, and that blogging is an even more exaggerated process in which each blogger seeks to place themselves right at the heart of the story. I plead the Fifth on that one.

The campaigning journalist

Charles Dickens began his journalistic career reproducing the speeches in Parliament for his readership, a feat requiring phenomenal powers of recall. In the meanwhile, he was churning out hugely popular fictional tales which made up an outstanding social commentary of the times. Dickens as performing celebrity became even more the centre of his stories.

Then there was young Winston, whose exploits seem to have had some parallels with those of the first of the Murdoch dynasty, Keith. Churchill’s reports from the Boar war made him famous and wealthy. His fame outlasted his periodic bursts of affluence. But fame and wealth came from his creative tales in which we wrote himself as the central character. And what about Mark Twain, yet another itinerant journalist whose genius with words excused him from proximity with factual reality as he reported on his journeys?

These were early celebrity journalists. They were at times hugely influential. Another example this time from France, is Emile Zola in exposing the Drefus scandal, In this case, the author used his fame to help promote the story, rather than use the story to promote his fame.

Back to the Rock

All of which takes us back to the still smouldering case of Northern Rock. This appears to have acquired its own celebrity journalist in the shape of the BBC’s Robert Peston. It The story continues to run. Now the BBC is able to maintain a stream of exclusive scoops by interviewing someone right at the heart of the story, namely their very own Robert Peston.

Peston’s influence on events these has been mentioned in Parliament. An overview can be found in a newsletter within which the following quote summarizes the impact of Mr Peston’s journalistic activities

The following press release was issued as Update No. 5 on 18/10/2007: Press049_Northern_Rock_Value (mainly to try and stifle some inaccurate press comment), together with the following notes: Some of you may have seen Matt Ridley and Adam Applegarth responding to questions from the Treasury Select Committee on TV news on Tuesday. Not a lot new was learned from the session except that both the Chairman and the rest of the board had volunteered to resign if required. It was also clear from the evidence given, and comments by Robert Peston of the BBC later that evening on BBC TV, that the BBC announced the rescue by the Bank of England in advance of it being issued in a Regulatory News Announcement based on a leak from someone. I have so far heard three different versions of who leaked it so am not sure which is a rumour and which is the truth. But it would appear that this premature announcement stampeded the company into making the announcement and we know that it was not possibly as judiciously worded as it might have been – the end result was an unexpected rush of depositors to withdraw their cash.

Truth, rumours and Robert Peston

The thought expressed in the above had been nagging away as I followed the Northern Rock story. Clearly, The BBC’s Robert Peston was leading the pack. He must have been the envy of less well-connected political journalists around the land.

But how much is straight reporting, how much highly personalized story telling? He is clearly very much part of the story. Peston is doing no more than the heroic journalists from bygone days, who thrilled the public by not just witnessing the story, but by playing a starring role in it. Not so much communicators as creators.

Stop Press

I was about to publish this post when I heard of a story breaking, on BBC’s radio four, related by a familiar voice, that of Robert Peston. The story? A member of the third generation of Murdoch, young James, is making his mark as celebrity journalist. He becomes head of the Dynesty, and heir apparent.

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One Response to Celebrity journalists as thought leaders: The case of Robert Peston

  1. [...] process followed the pattern at the BBC in the stories involving Robert Peston and Northern Rock, which we reported on in an earlier [...]

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