I mind someone telling me about one of the big Scottish broadsheets and how the same journalist wrote articles that appeared under different names to give the impression the business desk team was bigger than it actually was. The practical consequences of this became apparent when I read some articles about stuff I actually knew about.
The one that sticks in the mind involved an executive who had failed to deliver a high profile project the chief executive was taking a personal interest in. The executive was accordingly taken aside and told to piss off. This was reported later on in a newspaper article that instead paid tribute to the executive’s many, many achievements then waxed lyrically about their desire to pursue new career opportunities closer to family and friends. The journalist had simply cut and pasted from a press release.
He or she did so because they were presumably struggling to produce 3 different articles under 3 different names at the time and saw this as an open goal. Besides who would complain? The employer’s reputation was intact as was the executive’s which meant the journalist only had two more articles to write to meet that day’s deadline. Result! Except this example illustrates the mutual dependency that exists between journalists and corporate PR departments and the clear scope this has created for routine misrepresentation.
Thank god for the BBC then, that licence fee funded independent cultural giant! Except when I was looking at its business section today I read the following “top business” story headline – “Uncertainty 'keeps borrowing low'”. Does it? I’d best read on then what with us being in a credit crunch an'all.
The article started in bold with the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) assertion that “Uncertainty over UK householders' financial position is dictating their low levels of borrowing” and that this was evidence of “The "safety-first" policy of householders”. Despite this there was no need to worry because mortgage approvals had already stabilised. Then a spokesman from the mortgage broker Coreco offered some sage words of advice –if you’re about to come off an existing mortgage deal, DON’T just move onto your lenders standard variable rate. This “wait and see” approach could “prove very costly” because “the general consensus is that fixed rates are as cheap as they are likely to get”.
Shite. The BBA is the Banking industry’s mouthpiece and as independent of them on matters like this as my arse is of me after a kebab. Mortgage lending has collapsed because high risk lenders are closed to new business, foreign lenders have left Britain and those that are left have hacked back mortgage loan to values to the point where the average borrower typically now needs savings equal to a year’s worth of their gross salary to buy a house compared to the 5 to 10 grand people put on their credit cards before the credit crunch.
The fact the housing market collapse has been driven by supply-side constraints is why government is asking banks for commitments to lend money. But, what’s the point of that then if people have now adopted a safety first policy the BBA might say. But, that’s shite that is because mortgage lending has already stabilised despite every economic indicator and forecast getting worse i.e. if its safety first mortgage lending would still be falling.
So what we have is a BBC top story that blithely cuts and pastes from a BBA press release written in response to government intervention that also tries to recast supply-side constraints on mortgage availability as a matter of consumer caution. Quoting from mortgage brokers though is just insulting. Besides giving them a licence fee payer paid platform on which to publicise their brand they get the chance to dish out advice that essentially encourages people to get a new mortgage deal NOW. So OK why blame a dog for barking given mortgage brokers make their money selling mortgages. But, is there a general consensus on the future direction of mortgage rates? Mebbe if you’re polling fuckwits there is, but as the future availability of credit will be heavily influenced by what happens to secondary markets and the shape of these is currently being debated by global financial regulators, anyone that can claim there is a consensus when the latest word from the FSA is we’ll only start talking about things in more detail in September, by definition doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
So what we have here isn’t a top business story unless by that you mean
1) Uncritically providing a platform for a pressure group intent on influencing public perception of it's members and government policy
2) Handing over some free publicity to a salesman who clearly doesn’t understand the market he operates in.
But, hey ho in an age where its about being first with the story, first with the volume and first with the headcount reductions because with everyone now expecting free news on tap 24/7 no-one can afford journalists, its perhaps only to be expected.
Alternatively, introducing a policy whereby every comment by a spokesman or pressure group is prefaced with a clear statement of how they are funded and/or make their money would be a quick, easy and obvious response. It’d also be fun. Back in the 1970s the Glasgow University Media Group made its reputation largely by recording the adjectives news organisations routinely associated with trade unionists then pointing out what they took for granted as being common-sensical and objective was actually biased. Hence industrial correspondents (remember them?) talked about militant trade unions rather than just trade unions. Because updating this by say tagging the word git to the phrase mortgage broker might cause offence, we could use an FSA mortgage sales regulation style instead. Fer instance, any quote from say the BBA included in a BBC article or news report is prefaced by a statement that clearly sets out the vested interest involved. And some context might help as well.
So fer instance, the top story discussed here would instead read something like this -
“The BBA is the banking industry’s trade association in Britain. It is wholly (1) funded by the banking industry and has the primary objective of furthering the interests of banking organisations trading in Britain(2). At a time when government has sought to secure commitments from major high street lenders to lend money to customers in exchange for unprecedented levels of support the BBA has just issued a press statement claiming that it is actually uncertainty over UK householders' financial position that is driving the historically low levels of borrowing now being seen”
Comparable statements could similarly be used in relation to statements issued by PR companies, lobbyists, company spokespeople and so on i.e. the vested interests actually get spelled out. I’m sure all concerned would appreciate the transparency.
(1) The latest BBA annual report refers to what it does not it’s funding unfortunately, so perhaps they aren’t wholly funded by banks.
(2) What the BBA says is “The British Bankers’ Association is the voice of banking and financial services. We work with governments, regulators, media and the users of banking services to help build in the UK a world-beating banking industry within a competitive global market”. Except, that’s poncy self-serving wank that is.