MEDIA: Freebies and the personal finance sector shouldn’t mix

Every now and then, a journalist blurts out the truth and stops you in your tracks.

Every now and then, a journalist blurts out the truth and stops you

in your tracks.

This is what’s just happened on the Independent’s Media page (27


Isabel Ber-wick, personal finance editor of the Independent on Sunday,

gave riveting details of the way she and her colleagues on national

newspapers are courted. I’ve lost track of the PROs who have raised it

with me. As one said: ’In television, this stopped in the 1970s. I can

remember the turning point - a showbusiness journalist failed to get

call girls put on the bill when Lew Grade took some hacks on a trip to


Berwick described how in one week, she’d received an invitation on a VIP

trip to see Shakespeare at Stratford, a trip to the eclipse, and offers

of four lunches and two dinners. ’I sound like London’s most popular

party girl. Every week is party week in our industry,’ she wrote.

She also described greyer areas, such as the sponsored prizes organised

by the financial services sector. ’On my desk, I have entry forms for

three competitions offering a total pounds 7,000 prize money, and a

state of the art computer,’ she wrote, explaining how journalists in the

personal finance area can gain extra work - up to pounds 100,000 a year

on top of salary, lending their prestige to soft advertorial.

What is going on? Well, personal finance advice is a hot 1990s area

which papers are increasingly separating from core business sections.

Yet it’s still a topic way down in the editorial pecking order, little

scrutinised by editors, despite the way readers trust products named in


Further, newspapers themselves seem prepared to blur the line: running

advertorials which appear to back the sale of savings schemes, while the

Daily Telegraph allows its reader data base to be accessed.

The truth is, a debate is long overdue. For newspapers, the issue of

financial journalistic ethics was last discussed in the 1980s, when

insider trading was outlawed and City writers were either not allowed to

hold shares or had to register their interests. It has been carried

forward by the more sophisticated investor columns carrying disclaimers

that the writer is not directly dealing in any share tipped


Personal finance is a far more nitty gritty subject than


Berwick has struck at the right time: a code of conduct, organised

perhaps through the NUJ, would make sense.

But I sense corrective action is taking place. The Daily Mail has led

the pack in the past weeks with its campaign about the scandal of

mortgage mis-selling. While personal finance sections failed to

investigate the personal pensions scandals of the 1980s, they are now

starting to make a racket about pitiful annuity rates. The message for

those on the PR side of the fence? Exercise great common sense.

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