Opinion: Press ties itself in knots over Shell profits

Shell's record £9.8bn profits seemed to create a conundrum for much of the British press last week. Eager to capitalise on the increasing interest in business among readers - a trend that has led to increasing investment in business reporting by mainstream broadcast news channels - even the tabloids pushed the story up the running order. Shell's '£295 a second' profits made page four of the Daily Mirror and page two of the Daily Express. Only The Sun among the red tops relegated it to the City section, its main story focusing instead on a deranged individual who has developed a taste for four star and is drinking petrol stations dry around Teesside.

The themes of these main stories, particularly among the mid-market papers, were predictable and designed to provoke a knee-jerk reaction, focusing on headline-friendly outrage at the 'obscene' level of profits, conveniently juxtaposed with a five pence price rise at the petrol pumps and culminating in calls for a windfall tax. The analysis was not sophisticated, the rhetoric designed to appeal to self-interest.

Contrast this with City sections' more complex and less upbeat analysis of Shell's fortunes and a rather crude 'bad cop, good cop' scenario emerges.

Nothing unusual there you might think, as the presumption that the business end of a newspaper and the front are appealing to completely different audiences seems to underlie much British press coverage. The problem occurs when a story straddles both audiences.

In this case, the press tied itself in knots trying to reconcile what it perceives as the radically different views of its corporate and non-corporate audiences. The solution for most was to give their City experts a rare outing into the main section to provide an idiot's guide to free-market economics under such patronising headlines as 'Why big profits are good for us all'.

The results included some interesting juxtapositions, such as the Mail's page 4 'Shell's 5p shocker', quoting outrage at profits against the backdrop of the pensions crisis, only for the leader page to argue this was precisely the boost to the FTSE that will save our bacon come retirement.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the outcome can be judged a PR triumph by Shell's team of advisers. Except for The Guardian, the consensus fell firmly against a windfall tax. The Sun's dubbing of MPs who called for such a tax as 'dipsticks', combined with Shell's falling share price, are likely to ensure the prospect is off the agenda for the time being.

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