Media: My fear of the free lunch

The desk is groaning under the weight of invitations, but as brokers and bankers shower personal finance editors with bigger and better freebies in return for column inches, our integrity is taking a battering.
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK I was invited to a VIP dinner trip to see Shakespeare at Stratford; on a first-class rail and boat trip to see the eclipse; and to four lunches and two dinners. I sound like London's most popular party girl. The more prosaic truth is that I am the personal finance editor of a national paper. And every week is party week in our industry.

Many newspaper readers skim over the money sections, and most wannabe journalists are sniffy at the prospect of writing about pensions, savings and unit trusts. As a trainee, my first work experience was on Hello! magazine. I was convinced my future lay in interviewing celebrities about their lovely homes. (I suppose mortgages are close enough.)

Those of us who do drift into personal finance lead double lives: outside the office we are courted by PRs and their clients who make us feel like royalty. They have enormous amount of cash to spend in pursuit of "better contacts" with journalists. I have eaten in many of the country's best restaurants, got sick of drinking champagne, and have seen England play at Wembley many times.

Hacks with more time on their hands have recently enjoyed VIP trips to Wimbledon and Lords; and to see Manchester United and England play abroad (some barely missed a single important World Cup match). We've left behind the heyday of the lengthy foreign press trip (too many of them showed up in Private Eye), but there are compensations: last month a credit card company flew a bunch of journalists out to Lake Geneva. For lunch.

Back at the office, personal finance ranks extremely low in the newsroom hierarchy. City hacks rate themselves as more prestigious than johnny- come-lately personal finance reporters. And few people outside the business desks know or care anything about money and investments.

But the finance sections of the papers make a lot of money. In the year to the end of May 1999, 23 per cent of all broadsheet advertising came from financial advertisers (source: Media Monitoring Service). That's 10 per cent more ads than you'll see for cars and 6 per cent more than for computers and IT services. And as broadsheets rely on advertising for a lot of their revenue, the money ads are big business.

The sector is set to grow over the next few years, as we are expected to make our own financial plans. As an example of how far we have to go, in the US about 35 per cent of the adult population has stock market investments through mutual funds (their equivalent of unit trusts). Here, it's 11 per cent. This gap will close as more of us realise the importance of adequate funding for what could be a lengthy retirement.

The papers and Internet sites are the prime places for advertisers to collide with would-be investors. But that's no longer enough. The rigid distinction between the newspapers, their advertisers and the role of the personal finance journalists is becoming increasingly compromised.

The upfront examples are explicit advertorials (usually written by staff journalists, but not by-lined) and sponsored pages. For example, The Express' Smart Money section has a readers' letters page sponsored by Virgin - with pounds 300 for the best letter. Now the immensely influential personal finance pages of The Daily Telegraph have taken this a stage further. The Telegraph Independent Financial Advisory Service is to link up with Sedgwick Financial Services. Sedgwick will offer its services to selected readers from the Telegraph's database who have expressed an interest in taking financial advice.

The Telegraph group's own brand financial services already offer health insurance. In March, the Saturday Money-Go-Round section ran an article explaining why the Telegraph scheme had hiked its premiums by 30 per cent.

Even if you don't object to newspaper groups making money from their readers' financial needs, it's highly questionable whether readers ought to be directed to branded financial products or to see a particular firm of financial advisers. To be fair to advertisers and readers, the journalists should be free to act as independent enablers - and to help people to plan their own finances, if they so wish. At the moment, we act more as gatekeepers, directing people towards particular products or other sources of advice.

These deals are at least explicit. What is not well publicised is that the boom in the personal finance sections has allowed some journalists to make personal fortunes on the back of their association with the brand name of their papers. It's all down to increasing pressure on financial firms to get more exposure. The freebie circuit is easy to knock, but it's unlikely many hacks feel unduly obliged to a firm by going out to lunch or drinking their champagne. So financial firms are using two other potent tools: flattering our egos and fattening up our wallets.

The prize ceremony is a great way to lend your firm credibility among the PF journalists and editorial exposure in the winning hacks' papers (no one can resist publishing a photo of themselves getting a prize). On my desk I have entry forms for three competitions offering me a total of pounds 7,000 in prize money and a state-of-the-art computer. So far this year I have won pounds 1,250 (and prize money is tax free). The biggest annual competition is the Bradford & Bingley Award, worth pounds 5,000. But the volume and number of the prizes makes this a devalued currency in anything other than cash terms.

Even if they don't win anything, personal finance hacks are among the best-paid people in the newsroom. Senior PF hacks will make pounds 10,000-pounds 100,000 a year from freelance work on top of staff salaries.

There is also scope to make money from commercial writing for banks and insurers. This should be the preserve of the freelance writer, but a price premium secures a `name' from a paper and the authority associated with it. And this sort of writing is, as one PR put it to me, "money for old rope". Once you know a subject it takes very little time to turn around copy on pensions or ethical investment. Commercial writing pays at least pounds 1 a word. I am not whiter-then-white: I recently wrote 450 words for a bank's newsletter. That's pounds 450 for an hour's work.

There are exceptions. Financial Times journalists, for example, can accept low-key hospitality but there are strict rules on freelance work. But the current situation is not conducive to good, investigative journalism. The pensions mis-selling problem went on for years before anyone noticed - and it wasn't the journalists who first blew the whistle. Although many of the papers do campaign for their readers, there is very little investigation into corporate wrongdoing.

This sector of the press is compromised of too much cosying up, too much partying, and too much money. And there can only be more to come as personal finance becomes even bigger business.

City journalists are bound by tough rules preventing them from benefiting personally from the stories they write. There should be (at the very least) a voluntary code of conduct for personal finance writers. The current situation is open to abuse and makes many of us feel uneasy.

Motoring and travel sections are also accused of being less than independent. But there's a limit to how much you can spend on a holiday or a car - and most people have a good idea about how to go about choosing the travel plans or cars that best suit their needs. Personal finance is different. Your choices can affect your whole life. "Personal finance is an area of enormous confusion for consumers," says Philip Telford, senior policy researcher for the Consumers' Association. "If you get the wrong mortgage it costs you thousands, and the wrong pension can dramatically affect your quality of life in retirement."

Employees at the Consumers' Association work for a charity and are not allowed to make extra money from their expertise. Newspapers are commercial ventures, and it's unrealistic to impose the same rules or prevent people from doing any freelance work or going to the football or cricket. But it will do the readers - and the journalists - no favours to allow the line between editorial and advertising to become even more compromised.

Isabel Berwick is personal finance editor of the `Independent on Sunday'