‘I love you and miss you,’ writes Robert Peston at the end of his new book, and he really means it. The ITV political editor and host of Peston On Sunday lost his wife to cancer five years ago, but the first and last chapters of WTF are actually a letter to his late father, Lord Peston.
‘All my life I spoke to him about football and politics, but he died before the Brexit vote, before Donald Trump was elected,’ says Peston, who’s had a front-row seat on it all, frequently breaking big news stories, but has desperately missed his dad’s wisdom. ‘The book is essentially a conversation with him: the conversation we were never able to have.’
The ITV political editor and host of Peston On Sunday Robert Peston says he would never have voted for Brexit or Trump but he understands why so many did
Peston came to fame as the BBC’s business editor during the financial crash of a decade ago, landing big scoops such as the collapse of the bank Northern Rock. His hawkish good looks helped, but what really made him stand out was his unique way of talking with its strange… pauses… and sudden, rushing stresses ON certain unexpected WORDS.
The big news, when we meet at his publisher’s office, is that Peston doesn’t put a voice on for the cameras, he talks like that in real life. ‘My boys Simon and Max do by far the best and funniest impersonations of me – although David Cameron used to do me before he became prime minister and I am told he was pretty convincing.’
He switched to ITV in 2013 and now earns a reported £300,000 a year – but the high-pressure move came just after the death from cancer of his beloved wife Siân. How on earth did he cope?
‘I didn’t really,’ says Peston, with disarming honesty. ‘There were really terrible times over those five years when she was suffering the cancer. She died in my arms – it was by far and away the worst thing that’s ever happened to me – but there was no question in my mind that one had to get on, particularly since Max was just 15.’
So he tried to work his way through it all. ‘I did everything. I organised the funeral and dealt with all the awful things you have to do when somebody dies, the wills and all that. I typed up the last book that she’d written, which was left in note form, then I went back to work and I made sure that Max had the support he needed, because it was his bloody GCSE year. I just kept ferociously busy.’
Robert Peston with his late wife, Siân Busby, in 2006
Then he just crashed. It happened after he and Max went out for Christmas dinner with friends – the first ‘normal’ thing they had done since Siân’s death – but came home to find they had been burgled. ‘I don’t really care about material things but they’d stolen her rings. I had taken those rings off her fingers and I wanted to give them to the boys so that when they got married or whatever they could give them to their partners… but they were gone. It was a horrible moment. About a month or so after that I got quite ill.’
He was hospitalised. ‘They diagnosed reactive arthritis. All my joints swelled up and I was very weak for a period. I took about six weeks off, but fortunately I have made a full recovery. I think my body was just saying, “Stop! You have to be kinder to yourself.”
‘I think I did have post-traumatic stress for a period. I was in shock. It took me a while to get through it.’
Peston was soon back at work. His trickiest interview over the years was probably Philip Green, the controversial former Top Shop owner. ‘He threatened to pull out when I refused to follow his diktats.’
Now that he is well established at ITV, would Peston ever go back to the Beeb? ‘I love the BBC. I always will. On occasion it can be maddening, but it is a pillar of proper decent journalism. I have no idea idea whether I will ever go back, and I never think about it – because I adore ITV.’
Robert Peston grills Boris Johnson for Peston On Sunday
He now has a new partner, journalist Charlotte Edwardes. He’s been private about his feelings until now, but was it a surprise? ‘Yes. For a long time after Siân died, I didn’t think it would be possible. I just wasn’t remotely in the territory where I could have any kind of relationship. So it’s a surprise when you discover that you can fall in love.’
Now he has the confidence to come out with WTF, a hard-hitting examination of what the flip – to paraphrase – has gone wrong with the economy and society and how to fix things.
The Brexit result came as a shock and a wake-up call, he says. ‘I was shamed, because I had been so comfortable in my own cosy, smug, north London ghetto that I had not noticed how alienated millions of people had become from an economic and political system that suited only a privileged few of us.’
Peston says he would never have voted for Brexit or Trump but he understands why so many did. ‘It was the best opportunity they would ever have to give the Establishment a kicking for ignoring them.’
He sees Brexit as a sign of a much bigger mess: the way globalisation has ruined lives and in this country all the wealth and power have been put into the hands of an elite. The solutions he puts forward in WTF are radical: a wealth tax of one per cent on anyone with assets of more than £500,000, for example. He’d break up the Treasury and set different interest rates for different parts of the country.
Peston would strip the charitable status from public schools such as Eton and put pressure on Oxford and Cambridge to help the disadvantaged. ‘They are cancerous when they become the vehicles for an oligarchy of the rich and powerful to maintain their privileges.’
Having been sent to the local comprehensive by his father, a Labour peer, he went to university in Oxford and Brussels. Both his sons, Maximilian and Simon, went to state schools.
As well as trebling pay for teachers, he would change what they do. ‘What concerns me is how unfit for purpose our schools are. Our children are being trained to do jobs that robots and algorithms can already do. But robots can’t manage, they can’t tell jokes, they can’t be creative. These are things we can do that they can’t replace.’
He would give a share of company profits to the workers and enforce the right to belong to a union. So is Robert Peston a socialist? ‘Ha! I do not think it would be right to characterise these ideas as socialist.
‘There are strong views in this book but I would argue they are based on empirical evidence. I hope people who come on my show would take the view that I give them the space to argue what they want to argue, and that if I think they are talking nonsense I will challenge them.’
Listening to him today, Peston comes across as a man who feels released to be himself in a way we haven’t seen before.
Peston with his partner, journalist Charlotte Edwardes
‘I am quite angry,’ he says. ‘I work very hard to provide evidence for the views that I express, because every bit of me is a journalist, I’m not a propagandist. But I am also a human being who feels that the stakes for this country have never been higher. Everything feels incredibly fragile. We’ve got to recognise that the things we value – our freedoms in particular – are genuinely threatened if we don’t sort out a way to run this place that makes all of us feel we’ve got a stake in it.’
Whether or not you agree with his solutions, Peston wants us to have the conversation. His father would be proud.
‘WTF’ (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now, priced at £20