ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, 62, began his career as a print journalist and has broken a string of stories, including the Northern Rock bailout in 2007, when he was the BBC’s business editor. His debut novel, a slickly paced thriller titled The Whistleblower, is set in London in 1997 as Labour’s modernising new leader prepares to sweep the party to power in a general election. Enter political reporter Gil Peck, a flawed hero who stumbles upon the scoop of a lifetime after his high-powered civil servant sister is killed in a traffic accident.
This is your first published novel. Is it the first you’ve written?
In my 20s, I wrote three-quarters of a thriller about a female detective with extraordinary powers. I didn’t feel it was there really but I should have finished it because it wasn’t a million miles from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo conceit.
What made you try again?
I was working my guts out on Covid at ITV and wanted a diversion. I found the process of writing it really enjoyable for two reasons: it was quite fun travelling back in time and I hadn’t realised quite how liberated I would feel not having to worry about the truth.
Is it pure entertainment or does the novel have an underlying seriousness?
It’s a slightly pretentious version of why I wrote it, but I do think that the chaos we’re living through now has roots in the late 1990s. I think a lot of people have felt lost in recent years, and some of that stems from the erosion of traditional class identification, which was accelerated and magnified by the fact that Labour decided it was broadly no longer a working-class party. It meant people lost their political lodestar.
Will we be seeing more of Gil Peck?
I think of this as the first in a three-book series. The next will be set during the banking crisis and then the third – if I get around to it, which I hope I do – will be set more or less where we are now.
How would you characterise the present moment?
It’s a really complicated and confusing time. I mean, just the sheer magnitude of the shocks that we’ve had to go through, whether it’s Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine… And then we’ve seen the rise of a generation of populist politicians who have focused on the slogan rather than honesty, decency or the detail of what you need to do to fix problems. You’ve also got the sort of Tower of Babel of social media, which undermines the ability to form a consensus on the basis of what the truth actually is, because too many people have their own “truths”.
Have you ever thought of going into politics?
Members of the public are constantly asking. If they think I’d be any good, I think it’s mostly a function of how terrible the current lot may be.
Peck has plenty in common with you, including an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). How does yours compare?
In my teens my OCD was out of control. I would just not be able to sleep. I would get up at midnight and check that the front door was locked, that the gas was off – and then I’d check it again. It was pretty debilitating but because a lot of it happened at night, nobody noticed. It’s still there, it’s just more manageable.
Have you had any close shaves on your fold-up bike?
I fell off two weeks ago. This is slightly the story of my life, but my head was completely immersed in the Sue Gray report. I didn’t screw the bike together tightly enough and as I was going down Camden Road at some speed, the front collapsed. Boys and girls, wear a helmet! I got a black eye but if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet it would have been a problem.
Are you a dandy?
I like clothes but in the 1990s I was really interested in fashion. One of the great tragedies of my life as political editor at the Financial Times is I wore my absolutely favourite Jean Paul Gaultier coat to a party conference and somebody nicked it. The cut was amazing, I still mourn its loss.
What books are on your bedside table at the moment?
I’m reading George Orwell’s essays and I do think he has an understanding of England that is really profound. Also, Anna Karenina. It’s an amazing book, I don’t know why I waited so long.
Who’s your favourite literary hero or heroine?
Lord Peter Wimsey. Maybe I should say Harriet Vane? No, I’m not going to go for the politically correct version. Lord Peter Wimsey. Those books are so underrated and very funny.
What kind of a reader were you as a child?
I was a huge reader. I loved all the E Nesbits and CS Lewises, and I’m afraid to say that when I was 10, I literally sat on the sofa with The Lord of the Rings and didn’t get off till I finished it.
Have any books from your childhood stayed with you?
I’m as obsessed with identity as anybody these days, and the books that tend to stay with me are books that have helped me to root myself. As a teenager I discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer and he helped me understand who I was ethnically, because all my family came from the shtetls of eastern Europe. So I have a strong Jewish identity but I also have this weird longing for a lost England, which comes from a writer called Stephen Potter. His books are basically satires on a certain sort of minor public schoolboy – it’s that whole Three Men in a Boat world, which again I love.
How do you organise your books?
The weird thing about being OCD is you can be OCD about some things and not about others. When I was young, my brain was utter chaos. There were just thoughts going everywhere the whole time, it was total noise. I could control it when I was writing, but my book collection was always like the way I thought, everything was everywhere – and still is.