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.