City and business: Spin and the art of business journalism

It was Friday evening and we were still short of a news story. A contributor, a young man, still green but showing promise, rang. He had a story - about a Footsie 100 company in trouble, which, if true, and we could get it past the lawyers, would make a splash. I asked him if he could tell me where it came from.

"My Dad."

"Your Dad?"

"He works there."

I asked the contributor if his father could supply documentary evidence.

"No," he replied, "but I have my Dad on tape."

This happened last week, another moment in the jungle of business journalism. I would not have guessed this young man would tape his father. But I'm an American. Despite having lived in London for 17 years, I still miss cultural cues.

National prejudices running both ways still cloud reality. Now I'm leaving the Independent on Sunday, I've been looking back and trying to make sense of my professional odyssey as a foreigner here.

Conclusion number one is that working for a British paper has, at least marginally, reduced my penchant for being a sanctimonious twit. I've played the choir boy in the whore house too often - contrasting the shortcomings of journalism here with a mythical standard of journalism in the US.

I'm grateful that my immersion in British newspaper life has taught me a little proportionality when it comes to taking things seriously. The best American journalists stand behind the First Amendment right to free speech. But so do the most self-righteous and brain-dead.

Conclusion number two is that British journalism in general, and business journalism in particular, is a frighteningly flimsy enterprise. The stretched resources, the quixotic career structure, the disproportionate lack of seriousness create a space for free expression. But the lack of planning and methodology often translates into an unhinged quality to what gets covered and how.

IN THE absence of a solid foundation underpinning their craft, British business journalists read each other and come to a consensus on what kind of reporting is good and bad. This consensus is constantly shifting, but no one keeps track.

This process is, of course, driven by economics - Murdoch famously taking the news down-market; papers everywhere trimming editorial budgets, going for infotainment.

Journalists moan about it but few analyse it. We make a bogeyman out of the public relations industry. So-and-so PR is favouring such-and-such reporter. He's doing it because such-and-such a reporter is willing to roll over on a story.

I moan with the best of them. The balance of power between reporters and PR, it seems to me, is shifting away from journalists. How many City PRs are there, I wonder, for each City reporter? Is the ratio 2-to- 1, 5-to-1, 10-to1?

THE DANCE between business journalists and PRs is as old as the hills. My introduction to the British version came in 1985 during the Harrods, Fayed, Tiny Rowland story. I started chasing the story, and was surprised to see the British business press swallowing as fact the PR on the Fayeds' aristocratic background. There was no corroboration. Mohammed Fayed did not come across as an aristocrat. A little digging in Alexandria by a German reporter revealed that Mohammed Fayed had started his professional life as a Coca-Cola salesman.

I was outraged when I learned how the story in The Sunday Telegraph reporting that the Sultan of Brunei formally denied any financial interest in Harrods materialised. The story was negotiated between the paper and a City PR acting informally for the Sultan.

The Sunday Telegraph didn't like the first version of the Sultan's denial. It sent it back to the City PR for redrafting - and for the Brunei royal seal to be applied to the document in lieu of a signature.

Now I've grown up a bit and faced up to the fact that The Sunday Telegraph and I are brothers. All business stories are negotiated. Will you dish the dirt if we speak off the record? Will you speak on the record if I run your quoted comments by you? The intellectual honesty of a business story is to be judged, not only from its provenance, but also from the nature of the negotiation behind it.

I better understand it's reporters, not PRs, who bear responsibility when this negotiation goes wrong. The PR's task, after all, is up front - improve his client's reputation, sales and share price, or do his rivals down. Everything is spin now. Everyone from Downing Street on down spins. Public discourse is the clash of spins.

The job of the business reporter is to take what the PR gives, assess the countervailing spin, and write something moving toward, as opposed to away from, the truth.

DOES ANYONE care about any of this? Does anyone care that the standards of business journalism appear to be in decline? What we're talking about here is the way relevant business information gets into the public domain.

Big companies can buy the best information available - from market researchers, management consultants, and all manner of soothsayers, as well as reading the FT, The Economist, and their screen services. Institutional investors can do the same - buying information from brokers and other sources of market intelligence.

It's the small fry who will get hurt by the decline of business journalism in the national and regional dailies and the domestic electronic media - the Footsie 350 company trimming its cost base, the internet entrepreneur in Cambridge going up against Silicon Valley, the accountant in Swindon dealing with the rollback of the welfare state by stocking up on tracker funds.

As a matter of public policy, the nation needs good business journalism as never before. The irony is that Tony Blair probably grasps this, but his government is so deep into spin itself, it's in a weak position to champion an improvement in standards.

British business journalism, like so much else, could become a casualty of globalisation. The inwardness of the community of business reporters - the lack of objective standards - leaves it vulnerable to competition from new suppliers of business information.

If any of this is correct, it means the decline in British business journalism is part of a larger story - the growing gap between the information-rich and the information-poor. What I'm decrying here is the trend away from democracy.

I am, however, decrying in a less strident tone. At least, I'm trying to. One thing I've learned as a hack on the Street of Shame is that I'd be a fool to let these concerns, however legitimate, stand in the way of a good time. For this lesson and many others I'm immensely grateful to have been granted temporary pass to a foreign territory I have grown to love.