However, news emerges from the US of what is euphemistically called a ‘listen-only’ conference call in which the participants – financial journalists and investment analysts – are allowed to hear what the company wants to tell them but are not allowed to interrupt, challenge, question or even express disbelief.
Their role, like when Moses came down from the mountain, is simply to provide a believing audience and repeat the uncorrupted message.
The company to whom this innovation is attributed is New Century, one of those American lenders that specialises in loans to the poor. Such firms are having a torrid time right now as the American economy slows, house prices drop and bad debts spiral. So its conference call told listeners about how it was recalculating last year’s profits, how this year’s profits were going to be much lower than previously thought, and how there would be a delay before it felt able to publish its first-quarter figures.
Now, with that raft of bad news, one can see why the board might not want to take questions. But one can also see how unrealistic it is for any journalist or analyst to be able to write a balanced report without cross-examination. They have a choice either to write nothing, or to deliver a one-sided account.
I suspect this happens much more often than journalists care to admit, not necessarily through something as blatant as a ‘listen-only’ phone call, but through similar forms of one-sided communication – the partial press release, for example, that is backed up by a bland fending off of any journalistic attempt to probe deeper. And I fear too many journalists prefer to pretend that they have not been thus abused.
On one level, this might be considered good PR because it strongly puts forward the client’s case. But the art of PR is to persuade others of the merits of a client’s case, not simply to present it, and certainly not to present it in a way that invites scepticism. Some journalists tolerate such controls, but they are not in anybody’s interest.
Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard