Peter Oborne, Journalist
Profile by Bridget Osborne
April 2017 (Updated September 2019)
“I became a journalist because I was so unsuccessful at everything else.”
I suspect he wasn’t as bad at it as he makes out, but for whatever reason, Peter Oborne didn’t flourish as a financier. Having been educated at Sherborne School and read History at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he landed a job at NM Rothschild’s corporate finance division in 1981 and stuck it out for three years. “I was hopeless at it” he says. Not a complete disaster though, as he met his wife Martine, now vicar of St Michael’s Church Elmwood Rd., Chiswick, then a high flier in the City. They are still together (an achievement in itself) and now have five children. He also picked up some skills useful to a journalist; he understands how money works and is not afraid of financial spreadsheets or mystified by the City’s arcane vocabulary.
Aware though that he had zero experience or training as a journalist, he decided to go and live with a striking miner’s family for a week during the 1984 miner’s strike and write about it. The article got him work at a magazine called Financial Weekly (now defunct). “As a financial journalist I became very capable very quickly” he says, which got him hired by the Evening Standard. His big break came when owner of the Mirror newspaper Robert Maxwell died: “I had splashes every day for three or four days.”
“What saved me was my ability to write an Op-Ed piece”
Once he’d experienced the glory of having the main story on the front page there was no stopping him. Then editor Paul Dacre asked him to go over to the political desk, where Peter admits to having been out of his depth, especially when the incumbent political editor had a heart attack, leaving him as acting political editor. “What saved me was my ability to write an Op-Ed piece” he says. He doesn’t consider himself to be a very good news journalist. The lack of shorthand and the basic grounding in funerals and flower shows, chasing fire engines and court reporting, left him at a bit of a disadvantage in covering breaking news, but if a statesman died he was in his element. “I could turn in 1100 beautiful words for a page 8 Op Ed in 50 minutes”. (Imagine trying to do that now without the benefit of Google!)
I think it’s fair to say he’s compensated. He’s had more scoops and splashes than most journalists have had hot breakfasts. He broke the story that John Major was talking to the IRA, at a time when talking to terrorists was supposed to be unthinkable. His career took off in all directions – newspapers, books, television – in and around core jobs as political columnist for the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and associate editor of the Spectator.
Leaving the Telegraph
He was himself in the limelight in 2015 when he resigned from the Telegraph. He took issue with the way the paper was conducting its relationship between the editorial and commercial arms. Specifically, Oborne outlined how the paper downplayed negative stories about HSBC bank, a major source of their advertising revenue. In his opinion that compromised the journalistic integrity of the paper, which he called a “form of fraud on its readers”. Since then he has written for the Daily Mail and the Guardian and he takes himself off to places like Yemen and Syria, working on stories he wants to tell. I asked him how he did it, given that these are regions where even the most experienced and successful journalists on the ground struggle to get their stories aired. He said his income from his years at the Telegraph had given him the financial independence to go where he likes and sell the story afterwards. As a result, he has total independence and often writes about injustice ignored by the mainstream press – stories about British Muslims or Palestinians for example.
When asked about the journalism he’s most proud of, he goes to television. He’s made three trips to Iraq reporting on the Iraq war, undercover trips to Zimbabwe at the height of Mugabe’s murderous regime and a succession of programmes for Channel 4’s Dispatches. Among the best he counts the 2011 programme: ‘Inside Britain’s Israel lobby’ which showed how the Israeli lobby bankrolled politicians and influenced policy. “One Tory MP privately taunted me to make a film about the pro-Israeli lobby. He said: ‘You don’t have the guts. They’re the biggest lobby in Westminster and it’s a big story’.” Another of his favourites is ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim’, a Dispatches documentary investigating the impact of the 7/7 bombings on the lives of British Muslims.
Opinionated and ebullient
The thing about columnists is that they have a view on everything. Whether it’s natural confidence which begets the arrogance to think you should write a column or whether writing a column forces you to have strident views on everything, I’m not sure. But Peter is certainly not backward about coming forward. He pops up all over the place, at conferences, on Question Time and he outlines his views as he pursues stories, with passion and ebullience.
How is he so certain of his opinions? On what does he base his views? The answer is many years of talking to powerful people, decision makers, either off the record in the bars and corridors of Westminster and on the fringes of high level meetings, or on the record in set piece interviews. Not just that but time spent in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, seeing at first hand the havoc wrought by Western policies. That and hours and hours of meticulous research following money trails, emails, bank accounts, documents and amassing evidence from witnesses to important decisions, which uncover how power is exercised. That said, during 2019 he ate humble pie very publicly for changing his mind about Brexit.
The Chiswick Calendar Events
Peter Oborne took part in The Chiswick Calendar’s first Media Club event: ‘Do ‘journalists’ still do real journalism?’ and often takes part in our discussions on politics and world affairs. Read more about The Chiswick Calendar’s Media Club here.
He chaired The Chiswick Calendar’s 2019 general election debate between Brentford & Isleworth constituency candidates Ruth Cadbury (Labour), Helen Cross (Lib Dem) and Seena Shah (Conservative), which you can see here.