The Whistleblower by Robert Peston

What is a “scoop”? A utensil resembling a spoon? A novel by Evelyn Waugh? A “piece of news published by a newspaper or broadcast by a television or radio station in advance of its rivals?”

Waugh’s 1938 novel is about a hapless countryside columnist who gets mistaken for someone else and sent to a war zone. It’s a satire on the cynicism of the news media and its indifference to human suffering. A variation on the supposed William Randolph Hearst telegram to an illustrator: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”

Although the use of the word scoop saw a steady increase in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, it saw a dip in the (less cynical?) 1950s and 1960s before a sudden and precipitous rise from the 1990s to this day. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this increase has to do with a global obsession with a means of removing dry or semi-solid substances from a container. In other words, the tremendous increase in the usage of the word scoop coincides with the era in which “publishing the news ahead of your rivals” is about as meaningless a metric as you can get.

If we wind back time to the 1990s, to an era of AOL disks, dial-up modems and slowly loading web pages, we find ourselves in the milieu of Robert Peston’s 2021 novel, The Whistleblower. Being a journalist, Peston got an easy ride from his fellow hacks on the review pages when this came out (‘BRILLIANT’; ‘CRACKING’; ‘WINNING’), but the scoop on The Whistleblower is that it’s not very good at all. If you hate spoilers, look away now, but especially don’t look at the tagline on the book cover, which gives the whole game away.

Preston North End is a football club which is currently resting at 13th place in the English Football League Championship division. Robert Peston is an irritating television presenter with a background in print journalism who struggles to finish a spoken sentence and yet unaccountably became a news celebrity during the 2008 financial crisis. All I could think of as I started to read The Whistleblower was that it must have been a shock to his system to have to finish so many (bad) sentences.

You’d call this a roman à clef, except that the key is so comically large that it’s like one of those you used to get with 21st birthday gifts, back in the mists of time. And Peston really wants us to know we’re back in the mists of time, throwing in so much clunky period detail that it’s like being caught in an explosion at a car boot sale.

So there’s this journalist, see, who works for this financial newspaper, and his dad is like this Old Labour grandee, and his sister gets knocked off her bike. Gil Peck is the name. A quick glance at Peston Forth Bend’s Wikipedia page reveals that Peston used to work for the Financial Times, that his dad was a Labour peer, and that his sister was once… knocked off her bike. Let me give you a hand with that giant key.

It’s 1997, an election is due, the Tories have descended into a hapless mess of corruption and sleaze, and the leader of New Modern Labour is set fair to be the new Prime Minister. Gil Peck, when he’s not snorting cocaine at the Groucho Club or juggling one of his mobiles or repeatedly describing the gothic architecture of the Houses of Parliament, is investigating his sister’s sudden death and – hold on to your hats – the pensions policy she was working on just before she died. (I don’t think Peston’s real sister died as a result of her bicycle collision.)

The first third of the book is overwritten, trying too hard to be writerly, and focusing on needless descriptive detail. There’s definitely too much information about the tax arrangements of pension funds. It’s like Peston doesn’t know what a Maguffin is. Peck also keeps talking about his “Nokia”, just in case we forget that he has two of them and that it’s 1997.

Instead of something like, “I checked my diary and remembered I had a lunch date with…”, we get ¾ of a page on the history and importance of the Filofax, which is one of the car-boot period details Peston squishes in, quite unnecessarily. If you’re going to lampshade the Filofax so obviously, then it had better have some kind of pay off later in the book, but no. Loads of similar threads are left dangling. There are purloined documents, never mentioned after the first third; a stolen notebook (no consequences); another stolen notebook (no consequences); possible attempts on the protagonists’ life (no consequences).

And this is the bubble we’re reading about: the one in which the only thing that matters is the scoop, and the cynical lack of interest in the consequences means that we’re never really outside that bubble. Which, in a sense, is a realistic depiction of the privileged and rarified world of politics and the media in which diversity means you went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

I was talking about this bubble with a friend. I often wonder about these people, especially politicians, who seem to have no hinterland beyond their ambition for power and money. In terms of the news media, it’s people who have no hinterland beyond their obsession with the scoop, with tripping people up, catching people out.

(And here I will remind the reader that the very notion of a “scoop” is laughably irrelevant in the post-1997 world. As soon as news appears, it’s tweeted and shared and quoted, and nobody knows or cares who got there first.)

I try to imagine these peoples’ worlds, beyond political manoeuvring, especially Tories. Do their lives consist of gymkhanas, shooting weekends, dinner parties? What do they talk about? When Tories go on the attack against the BBC or Channel 4, they seem to do so in a vacuum, with only superficial knowledge of why people care about these institutions. I can’t imagine Tony Blair or David Cameron or Nadine Dorries (or Jeremy Clarkson?) sitting down to watch Gentleman Jack, or The Good Fight. Their remoteness from the lives of ordinary people is a well-known problem, but it extends beyond politics into the heart of the media. There’s a clear difference, as I have often observed, between working in the media and consuming it as culture. I’m talking here about a version of those Radio Times interviews, where a prominent actor, promoting their latest appearance, would be asked, And what do you watch on TV? And they would reply, I don’t really watch TV.

What I’m driving at here is that the bubble world portrayed by Peston seems all too real, in the sense that his protagonist can’t see beyond his next headline — but also in the sense that The Whistleblower seems to be a novel written by someone who hasn’t read many novels.

Oh, I’m sure he has read some things. I’m sure that all these politicians and political journalists had formative years. I think there was probably a time when even Tony Blair read a book or watched a film. But then I think that stopped, and it all became some kind of nebulous idea about what other – less busy and important – people do with their time.

By chance, the next book I picked up to read was The Ghost, by Robert Harris. Here we have another fictional portrayal of a Tony Blair–like politician. Blair’s legacy: to be portrayed as the very worst example of a big fucking disappointment. Whereas Peston was writing about a Blair–like leader on the cusp of his first term, Harris’ version is in the aftermath, on the lecture circuit and writing his memoirs while being accused of war crimes. But apart from that spooky coincidence of Blair-like legacy, the contrast in writing styles after 394 pages of Peston Dearth Penned was stark. Here is Harris, a proper novelist, who can string sentences together and make you feel you’re in a safe pair of hands; and there was Peston, slippery fingered hack, who can string clichés together but can’t write. One is a Premier League novelist; the other is 13th in the Championship—at best!

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