ITV’s political editor waived his normal substantial speaking fee to address the Liverpool Professionals Dinner with the event raising money for lung cancer research – a subject close to his heart. Tony McDonough reports
We are living in a world much scarier and more uncertain than that of a decade ago when the global financial crash began.
That was what ITV political editor Robert Peston told an audience of hundreds professionals and business people at Liverpool’s Titanic Hotel.
Peston was guest speaker at the city’s annual Professionals Dinner and he admitted that the current political turmoil, both in the UK and across the world, had caused a period of “extraordinary uncertainty”.
As one of Britain’s best-known and celebrated economic and political journalists, Peston normally commands a fee in the thousands for speaking on such occasions.
However, he agreed to appear in Liverpool for free. Nominated charity for the event, organised by Professional Liverpool and the Liverpool Society of Chartered Accountants, was the Liverpool-based Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.
Peston’s wife, the writer Siân Busby, died from lung cancer in September 2012 after being diagnosed with the disease five years earlier. Peston was keen to raise both awareness and money for the charity on the night.
He told the audience that the results of the EU Referendum, the US Presidential Election and the recent General Election had shaken the political and media establishment to its core.
And he added how this underlying seismic shift in public attitudes and behaviour had illustrated just how “catastrophically out of touch” most of the media is.
“This period is, for me at least, much much scarier than the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008,” said Peston.
“The reason for that is because from about late 2006, early 2007 onwards I was able to see what was likely to happen. It was obvious to me our financial institutions were taking too many risks.
“And, although what happened was, to use a technical term, shit, there is merit in being able to forecast shit because you can adjust your life accordingly.
“The problem with where we are now is just the extraordinary uncertainty that we are living in. It is an uncertainty that is gripping almost the whole Western world.
“And the reason for that is us – it is because people are behaving in ways we didn’t expect them to behave.
“People are broadly saying that they are fed up with the way the world has been run for the past 10 or 20 years and fed up with the people who have been running that world. And there is a revolt going on.”
However, Peston appeared to suggest that recent events had reaffirmed the true power of democracy by pointing out the huge changes taking place were happening because of the way people were voting in elections.
He explained: “People are protesting through the ballot box and when you protest through the ballot box that is significantly more powerful than the kind of things we saw after the financial crisis – demonstrations, protests on the streets which, in the end, don’t change very much.
“When people voted for Brexit, when they voted for Donald Trump, these were huge, powerful, some would say, quite scary changes.
“And my argument is is that we are at the beginning of this process of change.
“I am an arrogant prat sometimes and I think that I know what is happening… but if you were to ask me a deceptively simple question such as ‘when is it all going to settle down’ I would have to say ‘I don’t know’.”
A vote for hope
The main exit poll carried out on the day of the UK General Election is jointly commissioned by the big UK broadcasters BBC, ITV and Sky.
They receive the results of that poll around 40 minutes before it is revealed to the nation at 10pm.
“When the exit poll landed at this year’s General Election it was a jaw-dropping moment,” said Peston. “Both Labour and Tory high command expected the Tories to win a a 50 to 60-seat majority.”
The broadcaster said the Tories had failed to learn the lessons of the EU Referendum when the message of hope offered by the Leave campaign, whether or not its claims were accurate, had resonated with the public much more than the doom-laden predictions of the Remain campaign.
He added: “I went all over the country during the campaign and the claim that we would have £350m extra a week to spend on the NHS if we left the EU was the one thing that people remembered.
“There are millions of people in this country, in the US and in Europe who take the view that the economy has not been run for them and it has been years since their living standards increased.
“So when George Osborne told people it would be terrible if we left the EU a lot of people said ‘well, actually, it is bloody terrible now and we’re not actually convinced it would be that much worse if we left’.”
It was this yearning for change and a message of hope that Labour successfully tapped into during the General Election campaign, Peston added, with the Tories simply not learning this lesson.
“Obviously the biggest error they (the Tories) made was to publish a manifesto that was shit by any standards – and it reflected a kind of arrogance,” Peston told the audience.
“It was about how all of us need to continue to make sacrifices. What soon became apparent was that the British people were tired of simply being asked to make sacrifices. They wanted hope.
“The mainstream media characterised the Labour manifesto as Jeremy Corbyn’s suicide note because of its plans to nationalise, increase taxes and put up public spending.
“It just shows how catastrophically out of touch most of the media is.
“I was clear throughout the campaign that Labour was going to do massively better than most people thought. I’ve never before seen such a gap between what was in the newspapers and what people were taking about.
“On social media, what got people excited during campaign was the quality of their schools and what happened when they went to hospital.
“They were not talking about whether Jeremy Corbyn was too close to the IRA – that is ancient history for anyone under 30 and they don’t give a toss about it.
“They could see that Labour was promising massive spending on early years care, on schools and hospitals.
“And yet the Tories still published this dour manifesto and what people noticed was that Labour was offering hope to a country that was fed up with being told that it was always going to be ‘jam tomorrow’.”
Roy Castle Appeal
Levels of funding for research into lung cancer are “very poor” in comparison for that of other cancers, despite it being the biggest killer, said Peston.
“It is because there is a stigma attached to it – which is you only get it if you smoke,” he explained.
“The other myth is that you only get it if you are old but its all nonsense. My wife was 47 when she was diagnosed and I have known lots of people younger than her.
“One of the things that is quite frightening at the moment is the number of younger women being diagnosed with it.
“My wife was one of the few people I had met in my life who had never smoked a single cigarette.”
He suggested possible cause was pollution in the air, adding: “It is incredibly important we understand more about this disease.
“The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is a unique charity and I urge you all to give what you can to support it.”