Magazine article The Spectator

The FT's Mr Stephens Wrote It, but the City Only Noticed When the FT's Young Mr Peston Did Too

Magazine article The Spectator

The FT's Mr Stephens Wrote It, but the City Only Noticed When the FT's Young Mr Peston Did Too

Article excerpt

The stock market soars by L30 billion in a day, equivalent to the annual gross domestic product of Hungary or Peru. The pound falls by four pfennigs against the deutschmark. Fortunes are made and lost. The chancelleries of Europe quake. And why? Because Robert Peston, the political editor of the Financial Times, writes a story which says that the government is leaning more towards monetary union, and will soon announce that Britain may join shortly after its launch in 1999.

All this happened last Friday. My first thought was how odd that young Peston, whom I know as a former colleague, should have had such a seismic effect on the markets. I reflected that Mr Peston, who cannot be much more than 35, probably earns L60,000 a year - a fraction of the salaries of the City bankers and traders who ran to buy or sell when they read his story. (The pound went down because membership of monetary union would mean lower exchange rates. Shares soared on the same assumption.) Yet what this single journalist knows, or says he knows, is deemed to be of incalculable importance.

There was no on-the-record interview of a Cabinet minister behind Mr Peston's story, no public statement by any member of the government, no attributable quotes, no mention of time and place. Instead, Mr Peston cited 'a minister' who said, `It is now clear that we must indicate our willingness to be in there [a European single currency].' A few paragraphs later, 'a minister' is quoted along similar lines, and near the end of the story, which is about 600 words in length, 'a minister' is wheeled on for the third time.

The story is open to adverse criticism on several grounds. In the first place, it is not clear whether 'a minister' is one person repeating himself or herself, or three people with similar views. We can infer that the minister or ministers involved are not members of the Cabinet since, if they were, Mr Peston would surely tell us in order to give his report more weight. But we have no way of knowing whether they hail from the Foreign Office or Treasury, and are consequently close to decisions being made about monetary union, or whether they come from some far-flung ministry unconnected with the process. Mr Peston presumably wished to protect the confidentiality of his source or sources by not mentioning a particular department.

As we have seen, these technical shortcomings did not worry the City, which reacted as though the Prime Minister himself had made an official statement about the government's intentions. But the next day, Saturday, the rest of the press was rather sniffy about the Financial Times's story. Downing Street was quoted as saying that the report was `speculation but wrong', and the Treasury reacted similarly. Anthony Bevins in the Independent went so far as to note that Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, `speaks with some contempt of the man who wrote the report'. Mr Bevins and Mr Campbell are said to be close.

On Sunday more cold water was poured on Mr Peston. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, told BBC l's Breakfast with Frost, `The government's position has not changed. This morning we've got nonsense about referendums being held next year, and the rest seems to be pure speculation, and it is not built on any statement that any government minister has made. …

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