City & Business: Time to return to the news that matters

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ON FRIDAY evening Sunday newspaper offices were deserted after staff slunk off to the pub to watch England play Colombia in the World Cup. Business reporters especially, though, could not abandon themselves to the pleasures of the night. Three big stories bubbled away. Taking time off tickled the vestigial consciences of hacks charged with the task of trying to make sense of what was going on.

First, there was Japan and the risk the country's recession and banking crisis poses to investors in the City and on Wall Street and beyond them the global economy at large. The doomsday fear is of a worldwide panic followed by a worldwide slump.

Then there was Britain and Europe and the fact that the issue has burst the clampers put on it by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's spin doctors. Europe, you may recall, initially escaped New Labour's control as an issue last September when the Government sought to deliver two different messages to two audiences.

Don't worry about Europe for now, the Government said to the public. We are sufficiently sceptical about the single currency to wait and see what happens to it until after the next election.

Don't worry about our euro-scepticism, the Government simultaneously said to the markets. We shall scrap the pound in favour of the euro as soon as the time is right, and in the meantime we shall make preparations to do so.

In the wake of last September's euro flap - which offered us the definition of spin-doctoring as the management of expectations in violation of the precepts of open government - Blair and Brown seriously clamped down on debate about the single currency. But now, in the wake of Blair's pro- Europe speech in Cardiff at the end of Britain's EU presidency, Rupert Murdoch has decided enough is enough.

Defying the tacit pact among New Labour and its allies, the Sun last week blasted Blair for being a proto-closet-Europhile. Under the headline: "Is this the most dangerous man in the country?" the tabloid mocked up a picture of the Prime Minister in a mask that made him look like Robin trying to imitate Batman.

Finally, on Friday night, as business hacks cheered England's crunching of Colombia, they subliminally worried about a third big business story. On Thursday AT&T, the mother of all American telecoms companies, bought TCI, the Denver, Colorado-based cable television giant. This union brings the long ballyhooed "convergence" of the telecoms, media, and computer industries famously anticipated that much closer to reality. In the forseeable future we - or at least our American cousins - shall get our phone calls, game shows, movie reruns, internet web sites, and office data transmissions out of the same home appliance.

The question confronting Sunday business hacks reluctantly returning to their offices was: what do these events mean for Britain?

It is now twelve days since Washington and Tokyo caught currency traders shorting the yen with their trousers down. Intervening in the yen/dollar market, Washington and Tokyo propped up the yen and elicited trading floor screams that echoed through cyberspace.

Last week in Chicago, as 750 hedge fund groups gathered for the hedge fund managers ball that goes under the name of the meeting of the Managed Funds Association, the mood was subdued, to say the least. Reports Christopher Cruden, a partner in the New York-based hedge fund Tamiso & Co: "June was going to be the month that made the year for the guys shorting the yen. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't."

Faced with an Asian financial crisis posing a serious risk to the international financial system, many British businessmen may be tempted to throw their hands in the air. If Washington cannot solve the Asian financial crisis, what can anyone do to insulate himself against the prospect of a panic and slump?

Blair and Brown may be tempted to throw their hands in the air, too. If our economy really is moving toward recession, they may, indeed, find Asia a convenient scapegoat. The economy moving toward recession? Don't blame it on New Labour. Blame it on "extraneous" factors.

But if Blair and Brown do this, it will be the mother of all cop-outs. New Labour was elected to square the circle of Socialists' traditional commitment to a fair society with the iron laws of the global financial markets dictating death and destruction to all those flouting the world view of bond traders.

If our economy does sour, and if Blair and Brown do blame it on the global markets, this will be a nullification of everything they stand for.

As for Britain and Europe, the issue may be back on the news agenda. But what is there left to analyse? Everything there is to be said for or against signing up to the euro has already been said. The only thing to do is keep talking. Those who are bored with the issue, or who would sweep it under the rug, are turning their backs on or trying to postpone history.

It is on the third front of news last week - technology and the changes it is prompting in the economy - that the news looks least ominous. The day AT&T announced its acquisition of TCI, Psion, the hand-held computer maker, announced a link-up with the Scandinavian mobile phone makers Nokia and Ericsson, as well as Motorola. The idea is to corner the niche of the information technology market devoted to portable, or wireless, products.

This strategy makes sense. Tackle Microsoft on a small playing field where Bill Gates track record is most checkered with powerful, like-minded allies. The Psion deal serves as a model for other such strategic alliances.

So what, I wondered, back in the office, is the common thread of British interest in the three big business stories of the day? The answer is the need for a flow of high quality information. The public has the right to understand clearly what is happening in global markets.

We business hacks can do a better job of reporting what is going on. For its part, however, the Government needs to think less about managing the news, and more about creating an appetite for news that matters - the news telling us how the country is performing in global markets, the most powerful force on earth.