The false estate: Did property journalists mislead investors?

Irish investors who claim they were misinformed may sue journalists, says Matthew Bell

If the British property market resembles a shrivelling party balloon, in Ireland it looks more like the aftermath of the Hindenburg disaster. The bubble that started growing in the 1990s and accelerated out of control after 2002, when Ireland joined the euro, eventually burst spectacularly in 2008, and has yet to show any signs of recovery. Since the crash, those who lost a fortune or who have been left with unsellable property have been looking for someone to blame.

Now a hate figure has emerged in the form of the property journalist. Although a case has yet to be lodged, a number of aggrieved investors are said to be consulting Dublin lawyers about launching a case against certain journalists who, they believe, were responsible for misleading them into investing in developments that failed to deliver promised returns.

"Journalists fear they may be made legally liable for misleading readers who followed their advice and bought properties abroad, suffering major losses," says Richard Compton Miller, a property journalist himself. "There's a lot of anger among investors."

If such a case were brought, it would raise questions about the responsibility of journalists who use supposedly impartial editorial space to promote commercial developments. It may be understood among journalists that the editorials of glossy property supplements follow a less rigorous code of impartiality than conventional journalism – they are essentially vehicles for advertising – but to the consumer such a distinction may not be so clear.

Articles recommending holiday homes abroad are particularly contentious, says Compton Miller. "Journalists would go on trips to places like Bulgaria and recommend it as a place to buy a holiday flat. Now, places like Bulgaria have fared very badly, and people are feeling angry with the journalists who promoted it."

Property journalists have already fallen victim to the crash as newspapers have cut budgets and downpaged – or axed – their property supplements, because of loss of advertising. But many lawyers are sceptical about how strong a case against journalists could be. "The idea that any investor could sue a property journalist is barking mad," says Simon McAleese, a Dublin lawyer. "Though it wouldn't surprise me: people have been getting desperate to find someone to blame."

Even if it would be hard to prove that property journalists had deliberately misled readers, it is easy to see why investors might feel cheated. Property journalism has exploded over the past decade in line with the boom. But it has always been fraught with questions of independence, as developers use offers of lavish trips abroad to entice journalists to write about their projects.

"There are a huge number of freebies," says journalist Graham Norwood. "One top agent offered me cash to write a nice piece about aproperty. But part of the problem with international property is that the only way we can see a development is if the trip is paid for. Newspapers can't afford to send us, and we can't afford to send ourselves."

Because of this, it is rare to find developments getting a negative press. "If we don't like a development or property, we don't run an article," says one editor. This approach has led to certain supplements earning reputations for only running good-news stories, which investors might argue is misleading.

But, says Norwood: "Developers can be aggressive about coverage. They have threatened to sue newspapers if they publish negative editorial."

Among the victims of Ireland's property crash are newspaper groups themselves: at the height of the boom in 2006, The Irish Times bought property search website for €50m, a sum it would now be unlikely to fetch. And with papers investing in the property market, the impartiality of property supplements became even more questionable. "There were certainly some journalists who were notorious for only writing good-news stories, and of questionable partiality," says one writer, who wishes to remain anonymous. "But most are like any journalists, they try to be fair and accurate."

Whatever a story's angle, the burden of due diligence would always rest on an investor, says McAleese. "Proving professional negligence is difficult at the best of times," he says. "But the argument here would be impossible to stand up. It is buyer's remorse gone mad. It's like the mad murderer's argument: you knew I was mad, you should have put me in a padded cell."

But McAleese does not rule out such a case being lodged. "We've had the most bizarre excuses trotted forward in the Irish courts for commercial naivety. The English have a much more stoical approach, they just say tough luck, and get on with it. Here we're still casting around for someone to blame."

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