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Robert Peston has got it all wrong about ties —viewers want broadcasters to look humbly respectful

He should take his lead from American TV presenters, who are upholders of Reithian propriety

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

When Robert Peston, the economics editor of the BBC, interviewed George Osborne on television in an open-necked shirt with collar awry and a wisp of chest hair on display, he was subjected to a barrage of criticism to which he responded with vigour. It was ‘bonkers’ to suggest that wearing a tie made a journalist serious, he said, or that a tie should be worn out of respect for the interviewee. ‘I didn’t not wear a tie out of disrespect for the chancellor,’ he said. ‘I just didn’t wear a tie because I don’t really like wearing a tie. I think these TV conventions are nuts.’

A report in the Times of this dispute, in which self-appointed British ‘etiquette’ specialists were wheeled on to pass judgment on Peston’s stance, seemed to side with him against what it called the ‘starched shirt and tie’ dress code of Britain, comparing this unfavourably with America’s sartorial informality. Britain, it said, was ‘still enmeshed in its dress codes’, while ‘Steve Jobs, the late chief executive of Apple, always dressed in jeans, trainers and black turtleneck, and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, wears T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts to black-tie events.’

We are in the realm of fantasy here. How could anyone still describe Britain as ‘enmeshed in its dress codes’? All the social pressure in Britain is to dress down, or at least not to wear a tie. Peston is hardly alone. Our role model is Richard Branson, who has said, ‘I often have a pair of scissors in my top pocket to go cutting people’s ties off. It is time to say goodbye to the tie.’ So unfashionable is the tie that it’s not even worn much with dinner jackets any more. If you attend a ‘black-tie’ event you will find that the item usually missing from the uniform is the black tie itself.

The pressure to look informal is exerted from two directions — from the toffs who don’t want to look like toffs and from the non-toffs who don’t want to look as if they are playing the toffs’ game. Thus, David Cameron dresses as informally as he dares, and Labour party leaders tend to agonise before putting on white tie and tails for an event like the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. They tend in the end to go along with convention only because they risk popular disapproval if they don’t (bearing in mind the censure suffered by Michael Foot when, as Labour leader, he wore what looked like a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Day).

The British have turned against uniforms of any kind, regarding them perhaps as supportive of the class system and repressive of individuality. The Americans, on the other hand, have no such inhibitions. They may have invented jeans and T-shirts, and have adopted sportswear as their national dress, but they have never stopped loving formal occasions. You can’t be a middle-class American without being regularly called on to wear a black bow-tie, and there are times in Washington DC when the streets seem to be thronged with young men in black ties making their way to some event or other. The Americans go along with the idea that we are prim and stuffy and that they are informal and relaxed, but they are far happier in uniforms than we are.

There has never been much squeamishness in America even about the white tie. Ronald Reagan positively loved it and insisted it be worn at his inaugural balls in 1981 (he wore morning dress for the inauguration itself). And remember Fred Astaire’s ringing endorsement of the outfit in his song from the 1935 film Top Hat:

‘I just got an invitation through the mails,/ “Your presence requested this evening, it’s formal” — / A top hat, a white tie, and tails./ Nothing now could take the wind out of my sails/ Because I’m invited to step out this evening/ With top hat and white tie and tails.’

So we are quite mistaken if we think we are being like Americans in embracing informality. Zuckerberg and the other stars of Silicon Valley may, supported as they are by their vast wealth, feel free to flaunt their non-conformity, but most Americans working in offices still wear ties, and I can’t remember ever seeing a male presenter or interviewer on American television without one. They, unlike Peston, are upholders of Reithian propriety in how broadcasters should dress. They think viewers want them to look humbly respectful, and I think they are probably right.

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  • Clive

    At some point in the distant future, some child is going to say to its teacher (hopefully, an android) ‘What is this bit of cloth hanging down the man’s front in this picture – what purpose does it serve ?’ and the android will be a bit baffled on the purpose front.

    In Regency times there was the high point collar and waterfall cravat. Why don’t we do that ?

    I hate agreeing with Branson about anything but ties are pointless.

    • Ralph

      I agree that ties are pointless but the lack of hat wearing is something to mourn.

  • Junius

    ‘Robert Peston has got it all wrong about ties —viewers want broadcasters to look humbly respectful’

    They don’t – or at least, I don’t. I want people like Mr Peston to look as if he hadn’t forgotten to put on a tie with a formal shirt under a formal suit. There are plenty of semi-formal and smart casual shirts that look right without ties, and I am sure that broadcasters will have partners only too pleased to choose them, if they are unable to do so themselves. Or they could wear a roll neck sweater, ideal if one is getting to the scraggy-necked time of life like Labour’s answer to Wurzel Gummidge.

  • foto2021

    Rumour has it that Peston is moving on, perhaps to the role of Political Editor at ITV News.

    Good riddance. I don’t ever watch ITV News and won’t miss Peston’s self-indulgent, halting, mannered delivery on the BBC.

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  • M P Jones

    Well, what I normally want most when watching TV presenters, is radio (although a few minutes of silence would also do quite nicely)…

    • aspeckofboggart

      Americans as well.

  • Cim Thayne

    I much prefer that one bald chap on the BBC economics team.

  • aspeckofboggart

    Confucius would approve. I am more Daoist-Christian. Men are starting to wear dresses again. At least on the catwalks.

  • rtj1211

    I want broadcasters to hold public officials to account in the interest of the citizens. Whether they wear a tie, a jock strap or a diving wet suit doesn’t matter a damn if they are colluding in mass financial embezzlement, organised criminal violence and illegal global wars.

    Of course, if they don’t dress vaguely respectably, there may be a certain downside. But if the British think that wearing a tie equates to doing your job properly, they are deluded.

    Wearing a tie is the icing on the cake, doing your job properly is the meat and two veg…….

    • Mr B J Mann

      So what would you think if a foreign interviewer interviewed the head of your party (that you voted for and fully support) in a jock strap?

      I’m sure you would think he was taking the P and disrespecting your leader, and so you, and be P’d off!

  • Derek Custance

    Robert Preston is intensely irritating to watch and his self indulgent mannered performance distracts attention away from the content of the interviews he gives. The Americans have it about right, formal serious interviews deserve formal attire including a tie. It is surely a matter of simple respect and professionalism??

    • Mr B J Mann

      And what’s with speaking to ministers and even heads of states (unless female or the right religion) as if they are naughty schoolboys or even evil depots.

      Even if they are they represent their people until deposed and should be give due respect.

      If only because they won’t give any answers or interviews otherwise!

  • Peter Stroud

    Peston has the most annoying voice of any expert see on TV today. What is more, he is a very average economist, that only the BBC would describe s an expert. Perhaps he would gain some presence wearing a tie, but he would be more presentable if he addressed his halting manner of speaking, and practiced fluency.

    • Mr B J Mann

      Perhaps they needed him to hit their disability quotas?!

  • PasserBy

    I’ve always liked ties and uniforms. I wish it was acceptable to wear a tie casually without looking weird.

  • You are totally correct, Mr Chancellor. My husband has worked in the financial industry and also in teaching (private schools and one public school in Harlem), and on nearly all occasions except special dress-down days he was and is required to wear a tie. This is paired with a dress shirt (finance) or buttoned-down shirt (schools). Sometimes a jacket is required as well.

    We both personally dislike jeans on either sex and never wear them, by the way.

    When Peston says he doesn’t like ties, it seems that what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t want to do his collar up. I would also say that the tie is only important because men dress so stubbornly boringly. If they wore beautiful shirts with patterns, textures, and interesting colours, instead of the tedious plain stripes, checks, and solids they insist on, then a tie to liven things up would not be as needed.

  • Mr B J Mann

    But the US jeans thing IS a “uniform”!

    It is, just like fomalisations of former toff leisure wear – top hat and tails, then the bowler hat, as worn to the hunt, or lounge suit as worn when fishing – being what the rich bosses had taken to wearing on their leisure ranches.

    Toffs didn’t start wearing bowler hats to hunts because bank clerks wore them to work – it was the other way round.

    And Americans wearing double denim to work were aping their bosses just popping in from the ranch.

    And no doubt we’ll all end up wearing “formal” cardies and hoodies – smart ones, smartly!

    Which is the point: Peston is just scruffy. You can wear a tie and look scruffy, or not and look really smart. But it’s far easier to look smart in a tie, while it’s all too easy for a limp formal shirt to look all over the place without a tie to hold it together.

    And as for that bloke who looks like he’s just woken in a shop doorway and can’t find his dog because it ate the string?!

  • Mr B J Mann

    But suit and tie, or even top hat and tails, isn’t uniform as in military regalia, it’s uniform as in commie overalls – everyone is equal!

    But Peston wants to stand out because he isn’t outstanding!

  • Freddythreepwood

    That’s great to know. If ever I know that I am going to be in the same room as Branson I shall ensure I wear a tie. If he tries to cut my tie off it will be interesting to see what he looks like with a pair of scissors stuck up his nose.