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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans is the favourite to replace Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing