“Journalism,” it was once said, “is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” It’s a quote that should be framed on the wall of every newsroom.
Of course, every journalist knows this. We call PR the dark side. But most of us stray into it far more often than we like to admit.
My own story
I cut my teeth at a group of regional newspapers in a prosperous part of England in 1989. One day each week, we worked on a weekly property guide. I hated it. For a start, I knew next to nothing about property or the property market. Nor did I have any interest in it.
I would arrive at work to find a huge pile of press releases on my desk. My task was to work though the pile and turn it into readable copy by the end of the day.
It was hard work — there were several pages to fill — and sometimes whole sections of a press release would end up in the paper.
Mouthpiece for the property industry
I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I was doing wasn’t journalism at all. That property guide was effectively a mouthpiece for the property industry — housebuilders, mortgage brokers, building societies, solicitors and, most of all, estate agents.
It seemed to keep everyone satisfied. The PR people loved it, and so did the advertisers. Our shareholders welcomed the ad revenue; the property guide was probably the most lucrative title the company published. My colleagues and I who wrote this stuff thought we were providing a public service, and at least we got paid at the end of the month.
What about the readers?
The only people who were left short-changed were the readers. They probably thought they were reading impartial journalism, and assumed that the advice our experts offered was given with their interests at heart.
But of course, those experts weren’t really experts at all. They were people with something to sell. And we, the journalists, were helping them do their job.
I often wonder how many readers were actually persuaded to buy a house or a flat on the strength of the copy I wrote. I could wax lyrical about “chocolate box” villages, the benefits of living near a train station or a good school, the advantages of buying over renting, and the importance of stretching yourself to the limit because prices would only keep going up.
Except they didn’t. Later that year the housing market crashed. Prices in our area fell 30% or more. Those who bought at the top spent several years in negative equity; for friends of ours the strain of it wrecked their marriage.
Why I’m telling you this
In short, it’s a period of my career of which I’m not particularly proud. So why am I telling you about it now, all these years years later?
I’ve often thought how closely financial publications today seem to resemble that property guide I used to work on, but it was reading an article by a fellow journalist, Jeff Prestridge in FT Adviser that prompted me to write about it. Jeff is Personal Finance Editor of The Mail on Sunday, Britain’s second most popular Sunday paper. He’s a pro, and principled with it.
Jeff and I have disagreed, over the years, about the wisdom of using actively managed funds and the responsibility that journalists have to educate their readers about much cheaper, more reliable alternatives. My impression is that he’s gradually coming to the same conclusions as I have.
In this particular article, he writes about his sadness at losing a friend, a financial adviser, who fell out with him over an article Jeff wrote about the fall from grace of “Britain’s Warren Buffett”, Neil Woodford. The adviser is a Woodford fan; Jeff no longer is.
Jeff then goes on to make a telling admission:
“As financial journalists, we all need to strive to do our job better.
“Never once have I written investment copy for The MoS that has been influenced by commercial interest.
“Yet I have made plenty of mistakes. It is what happens when you are writing about investments with usually only the benefit of hindsight — and the views of experts — as guides.”
Retaining your integrity
That, then, is why I wrote this piece. I too have made mistakes. We all have. But only the wise are willing to admit and learn from them.
If you’re a proper journalist, you’re bound to upset people. You’ll almost certainly make enemies, and may lose a few friends.
But, on balance, isn’t that a small price to pay for retaining your personal and professional integrity and for doing what is still, for me, the best job in the world?
Picture: Wes Hicks via Unsplash