I was never cut out to be a showbiz reporter. As I recall, our usual correspondent was otherwise engaged, so I was pulled off my usual general news brief and despatched hotfoot to the Odeon Leicester Square to interview Jennifer Aniston at the première of her latest movie. Journalists.
I’m ashamed to admit I knew very little about her — to this day I haven’t watched a single episode of Friends — but some frantic, last-minute research (good old Google) revealed that the story everyone was talking about at the time was a rumoured romance between Aniston and her co-star Vince Vaughn. Now I hadn’t even heard of him.
To cut a long story short, the presenter handed to Yours Truly on the red carpet and, live on air, I managed to flag down Vaughn and fire him a couple of questions. He was so charming and talkative that I quite forgot to ask him whether he and Aniston were indeed an item off the set as well as on it. I did though — rather awkwardly, as I recall — ask Aniston the same question, only for her to give me an expression of what looked like complete disgust, as she shooed me away with a contemptuous wave of her hand.
When I rather sheepishly returned to the newsroom, I was pleasantly surprised to be congratulated by the same presenter. “Well done,” he said. “You asked her just the question that everyone wanted an answer to. Nobody ever does that on the red carpet!”
For me, that was a very telling observation which applies not just to showbiz reporting but to other types of journalism too. Sports reporting is another example. Have you ever wondered why footballers and managers, for instance, keep coming out with the same tired old platitudes? It’s because only very rarely are they asked the right question.
Just the same thing happens in financial journalism. Experts such as fund managers are asked questions that sound interesting enough — Where are markets heading? What will happen to China? Will the oil price recover? etc. — but they miss the point.
The questions we really want the answers to rarely seem to be asked. What do you make of more than 60 years of independent, peer-reviewed evidence that paying for active management is a bad idea? Have you read it? What makes you think your fund will be in the 1% of funds that consistently beat the market? And why should we believe you when your last fund had to be closed down or merged with another fund because it performed so badly?
I think there are two main reasons why the rich and famous are rarely asked searching questions. First, I suspect many journalists are slightly star-struck — as I possibly was with Jennifer Aniston (she’s terribly good-looking, you know). I’ve been similarly in awe of sports stars I’ve interviewed, and I’m sure if Neil Woodford or, please God, Warren Buffett, granted me an audience I’d have to restrain myself from asking for an autograph.
The bigger reason, though, is that if journalists did keep asking awkward questions, the stars would soon stop talking to them. That’s not the sort of publicity they’re looking for.
There is a symbiotic relationship between financial journalism and the fund industry. The former needs the latter because it needs something to say — plus, of course, the advertising revenue the fund houses provide. In turn, fund managers need the media to keep them in the public eye, to give them a stage on which to keep peddling the myth that active management is the way to go. The bottom line, frankly, is that the industry needs the media to help it flog its stuff.
It’s my belief that the active fund industry hides some dark secrets, and if only more journalists were willing to ask the right questions — to be as tough on fund managers and their trade bodies as they are on politicians — we might at last start to see some positive change. Until then, prepare for more of the usual blah.
By the way, I wasn’t required for red carpet duty again. Jennifer Aniston, I notice, has just got married to someone else entirely.