Thursday, 5 February 2009

MPs quiz Robert Peston.

Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor, appeared before the Commons Treasury committee yesterday. I went along to observe.

In these dark days one of my relatives lives by a golden rule: "There was nothing wrong with the economy until that Robert Peston started reporting on it."

The same shoot the messenger sentiment seemed to pervade members of the Commons Treasury select committee when they hauled the BBC business editor and four of his media colleagues before them yesterday.

The great Pesto, like a some Victorian music hall magician, has been accused - variously - of being the man who brought low Northern Rock, damaged the share price of HBOS and Lloyds, and is capable of moving financial markets with a 90 second television bite or a hastily typed blog entry.

Just how responsible is the media for the economic mess we're in and do the newspapers and television, by going on about how bad things are, affect confidence and the very chances of economic recovery? Or, in the words of committee chairman John McFall: "Why is the graph behind the BBC newsreader always pointing down?"

The Treasury committee has done a good job of shredding the reputations of bankers, financiers and regulators so far in this economic crash. Now they thought it ought to be the turn of journalists who report the disaster to take the rap.

For someone credited with so much power Pesto squirmed uncomfortably whenever his prowess was alluded to by his inquisitors. Did he have a secret pass to the Treasury, how did he feel about being a "market force in his own right"? Lib Dem Colin Breed cut to the chase: "Were you responsible for a run on Northern Rock?" he asked.

"I've given a lot of thought to this and the answer is no," said the great Pesto. It was a case of too many savers, too few branches and a crashing website. Oh, images of queues outside Northern Rock did not help but people did the sensible thing to take their money out.

If it was a firing squad then the bullets were going astray. The trouble with journalists in a shooting gallery is that they are as opinionated as politicians, and a lot more articulate. One of the MPs changed tack and asked if the media had not actually caused this mess should they not have seen it coming?

"When the policemen and all the monitors have failed everyone blames the press for not helping them out. It just doesn't wash I'm don't think." said Simon Jenkins, the Guardian columnist. "There are plenty of journalists who were saying something's going wrong here. You happen to have all five journalists who predicted the credit crunch here."

Couldn't they then help by putting good news on the front page for a change, hurrumphed another MP? "Putting happy talk on the front page does not make commercial sense," said Lionel Barber of the Financial Times. "There's no way of hiding that this country is going to have a very tough year at least. The economy is in recession, we've just come off a huge credit boom where everyone thought they could get wealthy on the back of house prices. Now we have correction and it's going to be painful." That was the news, no denying it.

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