Thursday 13 June 2013

A difference of opinion between Paul Mason and Robert Peston

The departure of Stephen Hester as CEO of the largely taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland was the lead story on both Radio 4's The World Tonight and BBC Two's Newsnight last night. A comparison of their respective treatments of the story might  prove interesting. (Well, it interests me anyway!)

Both programmes structured the way they reported the story in a strikingly similar fashion. They each included two interviews - one with a senior BBC reporter (The World Tonight talking to Robert Peston, Newsnight to Paul Mason), the other with a senior Labour Party figure from the Gordon Brown era. Both of the Labour interviewees (Lord McFall and Lord Myners) spent much of their respective interviews strongly criticising Tory chancellor George Osborne and arguing that Mr Hester should have been left in place to oversee the privatisation of RBS. No coalition spokesmen were interviewed to balance this out on either of the programmes. 

There were differences however.

The way Newsnight chose to frame the story was summed up by the question, "Is RBS rushing to privatise?" The World Tonight had no such up-front angle.

The World Tonight prefaced its interview with Labour's Lord McFall with a clip of George Osborne stating his position, while Newsnight chose not to include any such clip. Nor did Newsnight include either of the clips used on The World Tonight of Stephen Hester saying "It's been a very bruising and difficult job and so I certainly don't have to be prised away reluctantly" and "I would have taken it through privatisation but if the right person can be found for whom it is the beginning of a journey to lead RBS, it's the better way".

Paul Mason, all in all, seemed to be telling a different story to Robert Peston's. Paul talked of the "big obsession" at the time of the government takeover of most of RBS with being seen not to wholly nationalise the bank. He inferred than Stephen Hester is less sure that RBS is ready for privatisation by the end of 2014 than George Osborne. He had what came across as a little dig at the Treasury for not sharing the "popular" option of breaking up the bank. He provided evidence (in advance) for Lord Myners's criticism of the "political interference" faced by Mr Hester (criticism Lord McFall was also making on Radio 4) from George Osborne (and David Cameron). And, above all, he highlighted what he sees as "the problem" - having the same person supervising both the sale of the bank and the post-sale running of the bank. This, Paul continued, would create a "conflict of interest" because the new CEO would then be serving two sets of shareholders with very different interests - us, the taxpayers at the time of the sale, the new private shareholders after the sale. "It might have been better handled", he argued, if two different people had handled the two stages of privatisation. It was a point of view that's unlikely to have been appreciated by the Treasury.

Though you could argue that it was implicit in what he said (if you were sufficient wide-awake and up-to-speed with the story), nowhere did Paul Mason or Newsnight make it explicit that George Osborne and the board of RBS preferred someone who would guarantee to investors that he (or she) would be around for the long term - something Mr Hester was apparently unwilling to commit to.

To have that point made clearly would have given Newsnight viewers a much sharper set of perspectives on the story. As it is, that lack of clarity must have led most of them to have assumed that political interference, probably done because Mr Hester disagreed with Mr Osborne over the timing of the privatisation, was the sole cause of his departure. They made it sound as if he was given his car keys, his case and shown the door (as Paul put it) simply because of political pressure from the Treasury over this point. As I say, not an account then that would have been appreciated by George Osborne.

Robert Peston, in complete contrast, could not have made the government's reasoning more explicit (or given it a better gloss). He even began with it:
"Well, what's happened since is that the Chancellor and the board of RBS have decided they need somebody to run the bank who's prepared to commit not only to see it through privatisation but to run it for several years after that and it is the case, as I think you [Carolyn Quinn] pointed out to Lord McFall, that Stephen Hester, although he was keen to stay through privatisation, certainly wasn't ready to go, he wasn't prepared to say he was prepared to stay for many years after that and so, in the end by mutual agreement, because, as I say, he wasn't prepared to for the years that the Chancellor and the chairman Philip Hampton wanted, they've decided mutually to part company. I did ask the Treasury, you know, 'Was he sacked?'. No, they said he wasn't, and I think that's probably right, but it was perfectly clear when he wasn't prepared to make that commitment that he had to go."  
Robert then went on to discuss the interview he'd conducted earlier that evening with Mr Hester:
"Now the thing which I thought in my interview with Stephen Hester this evening, that I thought was most significant, was that Stephen Hester said to me that he thought that in this privatisation taxpayers would be able to get back all of the £45-46 billion that we'd invested in it when we semi-nationalised the bank in 2008. Now that is not only of enormous cheer, one would think, to many taxpayers but it's also of enormous political significance."
And yet Paul Mason on Newsnight drew the exact opposite conclusion to Robert Peston:
"But on top of that, the idea that it's a dead cert that this can be sold without losing money is something that I think in his statement tonight..he gave an interview to my colleague Robert Peston earlier..see what you think...I don't think he's as convinced as Osborne." [A clip followed, that didn't convince me that Paul's reading of it was correct at all. But as he says, see what you think]. 
If you're drawing the conclusion from their wildly differing interpretations of this story that Robert Peston's version casts the present government in a much better light that Paul Mason's then you are, I think, quite correct. Any assertions of party political bias you might make from that, however, are complicated by another sharp difference between their two accounts - a difference that points in the other direction.

Paul Mason stated as a fact that the Labour government "paid, therefore, over the odds for what it could have paid and it just seized the bank at its lowest ebb."

Robert Peston, however, said:
"There are lots of people around George Osborne urging him to flog the bank and not worry quite as much about what he gets for it because he can always blame the last Labour government for allegedly paying too much for these shares."
Not "allegedly" according to your colleague Paul Mason, Robert!

So, as you can see, there were several sharply contrasting points of interpretation between two senior BBC reporters here. This is what happens when BBC editors editorialise.

As for the interviews with the two senior Labour figures, Carolyn Quinn's interview with Lord McFall was a gentle one, with a couple of contrary points being put to him [he kept calling her 'Caroline', something I seem to recall he also used to do when he was a regular on Radio 4], whilst Jeremy Paxman's interview with Lord Myners contained a good deal of Paxmanesque political pantomime. At least, Paxo put a question to the highly party political Labour lord about Labour's responsibility for certain things at RBS. Carolyn didn't.

You can, of course, watch or listen again to both programmes for a while and form your own conclusions from all of this.

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