Media: Secrets of the Square Mile

Want to make a film about the City? You'll have to get past the press officers first.
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The Independent Culture
FOR THE last 16 months, I've been making City Stories, a series for Channel 4 on the people who work in the City of London - merchant bankers, stockbrokers, traders.

The City is a tiny area, bursting with drama. "You can see all the world's vices and all the virtues here," said one young, wealthy trader. As a rule, there are many more talented and intelligent people working inside the Square Mile than out and City people work at a level of intensity which would flatten most people.

Because it is rare in journalism to find such an untouched subject, I was overjoyed to be asked to make the series. Perhaps foolishly, I convinced myself that an honest approach, charm, and the reputation of a company known for producing respected documentaries, would yield results. It did eventually, but our production team had to learn some hard lessons first.

We learned the most important one early on, and I realised why no one had made a similar series before. The biggest problem facing anyone trying to do an honest job of representing life in the City is the PR people who work for these organisations. They are called many things in the City: press officer (straightforward, but rare); marketing manager (at least the title accurately describes the job, which is to push the product); even vice-president, corporate communications (a favourite among certain self-important American banks).

Press officers in the Square Mile appear to be rewarded according to how adeptly they keep the media at arm's length. The wealth and lack of accountability of the firms they work for seems to mean that little is demanded of them. They were almost uniformly cynical about our motives.

I don't expect anyone to sympathise with the plight of film-makers struggling to make a difficult subject work for television, but I believe this issue does matter. Above all, most Financial PRs are a poor advertisement for the companies they represent. Financial services - banks, brokers, mortgage- arrangers and fund managers, foreign exchange - represent an enormous chunk of this country's economy: by some estimates, up to 25 per cent. These firms are a hugely significant part of life in Britain.

Our commissioning editor at Channel 4 was interested in the companies working in the mainstream financial markets, not the retail banks you and I pay our wage cheques into. Brokers work for fund managers; analysts sell information to brokers; and so on. Since their customers are institutions like themselves, not the public, it's hard for these firms to see why they have any need to explain to viewers what they do, apart from that they owe to their shareholders. "What's in it for us?" the FPRs all said.

The idea that the public has an interest about what goes on in the secretive world of the Square Mile (these are the people, after all, who arrange our mortgages and invest our pension funds) cuts no ice. For the FPRs representing banks, brokers and investment funds, there is no upside, and a potentially huge downside to agreeing to take part in a documentary series. Maybe we would stitch them up to make a more sensational series; inadvertently betray client confidentiality during filming in a busy dealing room; reveal where a wealthy broker lived and someone might kidnap his children for ransom (really).

Here's how it works. After one or two meetings with an FPR, you establish a level of trust. The FPR introduces you to key people in the bank, who agree that a series about the City would definitely be fascinating. But after a while, silence. You could grow old and die waiting for your calls to an FPR to be returned.

Our experience at one big French bank was typical. The FPR indicated, cautiously, that in principle we would film individuals at work. We got on well enough. She promised to lend me her copy of Liar's Poker. It had taken five months to get to this stage. Eventually, I heard from one of her colleagues that we were unlikely to be allowed to film. I bought my own copy of Liar's Poker.

The worst experience was with LIFFE, the London Futures Exchange. To be fair, the exchange has had a terrible press. Its traders are too young, too working class, too vulgar, too wealthy. One, a former carpet-fitter from Bermondsey named Terry Crawley, is reputed to have made pounds 23m in one year recently.

LIFFE was too good a story to ignore. The trading floor is dying, and the traders are about to be replaced by computers. We wanted the story of what happens to the traders as they see their livelihoods being taken away from them.

The FPRs at the Exchange initially agreed in principle to filming, but it took nine months of negotiation before they let us film some general shots from the gallery. Later still, we managed to interview the chairman. What was disappointing was the FPRs' apparent lack of interest in working with us to create something worthwhile.

The lesson here for FPRs is that they should make more effort to co- operate with the media. They didn't, and we made the series anyway, so they have no input at all.

Finance isn't boring. But all too often the FPRs would prefer it if you think it is.

`City Stories' goes out on Channel 4 at 11.05pm this Thursday

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