Writing Wrongs

Robin Powell

“JOURNALISM IS printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” It’s a quote that should be framed on the wall of every newsroom.

Of course, every journalist knows this. We call PR—public relations—the dark side. But most of us journalists stray into it far more often than we like to admit.

As a reporter, I cut my teeth at a group of regional newspapers in a prosperous part of England in 1989. One day each week, we worked on a weekly real estate guide. I hated it. I knew next to nothing about property or the property market, nor did I have any interest in it. 

I would arrive at work to find a huge pile of press releases on my desk. My task was to work though the pile and turn it into readable copy by the end of the day. It was hard work—there were several pages to fill—and sometimes whole sections of a press release would end up in the newspaper.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing wasn’t journalism at all. That real estate guide was effectively a mouthpiece for the property industry—homebuilders, mortgage brokers, mortgage lenders, lawyers and, most of all, real estate agents. 

It seemed to keep everyone satisfied. The PR people loved it, and so did the advertisers. Our shareholders welcomed the ad revenue; the property guide was probably the most lucrative title the company published. My colleagues and I who wrote this stuff thought we were providing a public service, and at least we got paid at the end of the month.

The only people who were left shortchanged were the readers. They probably thought they were reading impartial journalism and assumed that the advice our experts offered was given with their interests at heart. But, of course, the experts weren’t really experts at all. They were people with something to sell. And we, the journalists, were helping them do their job.

I often wonder how many readers were actually persuaded to buy a house or an apartment on the strength of the copy I wrote. I could wax lyrical about quaint villages, the benefits of living near a train station or a good school, the advantages of buying over renting, and the importance of stretching yourself to the limit because prices would only keep going up.

Except they didn’t. Later that year, the housing market crashed. Prices in our area fell 30% or more. Those who bought at the top spent several years with negative home equity. For friends of ours, the strain of it wrecked their marriage.

In short, it’s a period of my career of which I’m not particularly proud. So why am I telling you about it now, three decades later? 

I’ve often thought how closely financial publications today seem to resemble that real estate guide I used to work on. But it was reading an article by a fellow journalist, Jeff Prestridge in FT Adviser, that prompted me to write about it. Jeff is personal finance editor of The Mail on Sunday, Britain’s second most popular Sunday paper. He’s a pro, and principled with it. 

Jeff and I have disagreed over the years about the wisdom of using actively managed funds and the responsibility that journalists have to educate their readers about cheaper, more reliable alternatives. My impression is that he’s gradually coming to the same conclusions I have.

In this particular article, he writes about his sadness at losing a friend, a financial advisor, who fell out with him over an article Jeff wrote about the fall from grace of “Britain’s Warren Buffett,” Neil Woodford. The advisor is a Woodford fan. Jeff no longer is.

Jeff then goes on to make a telling admission: “As financial journalists, we all need to strive to do our job better. Never once have I written investment copy for The [Mail on Sunday] that has been influenced by commercial interest. Yet I have made plenty of mistakes. It is what happens when you are writing about investments with usually only the benefit of hindsight—and the views of experts—as guides.”

I, too, have made mistakes. We all have. But only the wise are willing to admit and learn from them. If you’re a proper journalist, you’re bound to upset people. You’ll almost certainly make enemies and you may lose a few friends. But, on balance, isn’t that a small price to pay for retaining your personal and professional integrity and for doing what is still, for me, the best job in the world?

Robin Powell is an award-winning journalist. He’s a campaigner for positive change in global investing, advocating better investor education and greater transparency. Robin is the editor of The Evidence-Based Investor, which is where a version of this article first appeared. His previous articles were Private Matters and Where’s the Value? Follow Robin on Twitter @RobinJPowell.

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