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Power Hour

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  • 05/09/2002
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This Power Hour roundtable discussion tackles the role of the media in the mortgage and housing markets

Jonathon Whiteley: Are the press market makers or objective third parties? Can we as ‘the press’ make or break an issue?

Alex Bland: I do not think the press can make an issue in the sense that it cannot make something out of nothing. For example, buy to let has become incredibly popular over the last couple of years and a large part of that is due to the exposure it has received in the media. But there are other elements such as the poorly performing stock market. The press possibly opened it up to a wider range of people who perhaps wouldn’t have considered it before.

Terry Hepplewhite: I think the press ‘ particularly the consumer press ‘ is not always as objective as it might be and as we know they like to go for the meatier story, it is the reason for their existence.

Michael Bolton: It strikes me that the scope for The Economist approach to quality financial journalism is not out there at the moment. There is a degree to which the national press sensationalises stories in an almost tabloid approach to issues which are a serious subject in terms of financial affairs.

Roger Anderson: The differing amount of influence and approaches taken by the national newspapers is vast. It is important not to lump them all together as some are more responsible than others.

Peter Timberlake: The hype in the national press over particular issues can make issues, and that it can do a disservice to readers. For example, the endowment issue created a certain amount of concern among the reading public. Many people phoned their lender, but found their concerns were unfounded or not as bad as they were led to believe. They read the story in the national press, and worried because it was not presented in as objective a fashion as it could be.

However, I think the media can only create a short-term reaction to something, I am not sure whether it can create long-term change in attitude. When a story appears in the papers ‘ whether it is the trade press or the national press ‘ you can see a reaction in the number of calls almost immediately, but that tails off after a while and then you’re back to normal.

Jonathon Whiteley: How much of a duty does the media have to educate the public?

Alex Bland: In an ideal world the press would not have a duty to educate, but I think it has got itself into a position where it does. People trust and rely on what they read, and they are seen to have a quasi-educational role. Articles often come across as educational pieces, but they are not going into the depth that you get from seeking financial advice. People believe it, and they think that is all they need to know.

Terry Hepplewhite: People ought to take responsibility for investigating their financial affairs by talking to their adviser or their provider, but I think what has happened is that a tremendous atmosphere of mistrust of advisers and providers has built up. This is mainly due to the press and is self-perpetuating, so consumers get frightened about what the press have said and take action on the basis of that alone.

Andy Stuart: The press has got limited space and wants to get a good story, but they have got to realise there is a degree of responsibility behind that.

There are things that deserve attacking, which you should criticise, but you should be aware you have a responsibility to the reader that they do not go out and do something stupid. The media is encouraging people into believing they are the good guys who are helping them, but they do not always get it right either.

In 1986, endowments were a good idea, we had sky high inflation and it made sense. We were not reporting incorrectly, we were just reporting things as they were at the time. You expect that people are relatively adult about taking out a mortgage, unfortunately they are not and the media does have some responsibility for that.

Rachel Williams: The roll of the press should be to raise awareness of an issue, but not to dictate the response. It should be the readers’ responsibility to understand it is the paper’s opinion of an issue and it is their responsibility to speak to their financial adviser and find out how the situation affects them. The press has to take some responsibility, but the consumer has to take some responsibility for their financial affairs too.

Jonathon Whiteley: Could there be a situation where the financial press falls under the umbrella of regulation?

Andy Stuart: That would be a worry and the good bits of reporting would then not happen. The press would be terrified of saying anything in case it came back to haunt them.

Roger Anderson: There is no way it would ever happen. It was talked about when the latest Financial Service’s Act was still at the Bill stage, but it didn’t stand a chance of getting through.

Michael Bolton: But every week, virtually every serious personal finance section in the national press is making recommendations and offering advice on products. There is not a week that goes by without the usual suspects in the broker world being used substantiate stories.

You tend to get a view based on four or five out of 40,000 regulated mortgage brokers in this market. So they do offer advice and recommendations on mortgages, and it is mostly on the basis of these few high street names that have the ear of the press.

Jonathon Whiteley: Is it a serious failing the same few names keep appearing, and is the net effect of the story going to be any different?

Peter Timberlake: The press may rely on three or four familiar spokespeople each week, but I don’t think you can blame the media for going down that road. They have got a job to do and, particularly in the trade press, a lot of stories to write in a short period of time.

Of course you are going to go to those people who give you informed and hopefully balanced comments week in week out, because you know you are going to get your answers from them and you have not got time to wait two days for someone to get back to you.

Michael Bolton: I do not dispute that, but those four or five who normally comment on mortgage news in the nationals are not active brokers in the non-conforming market. There is not enough debate in this sector of the market.

Rachel Williams: I think readers want to see quotes from different people, but if they see three or four quotes in there, whether or not it is from the same brokers, they still think they are getting a balanced opinion. And this is not as it should be, but it is better than if they read something without quotes ‘ it is like admitting there is no expert back up to the story.

Jonathon Whiteley: Do you think editorial integrity might sometimes be compromised by other factors?

Michael Bolton: I think the trade press is notoriously more biased than the national press. There are several mortgage stories I am aware of that have gone to every trade paper, but have not run due to the commercial interest.

And I know, although I hasten to add not around this table, there are titles out there where part of the deal of getting your editorial coverage is how many pages you advertise during the course of the year.

Roger Anderson: It would only be a weak publication that does that sort of deal. Clearly, those publications are not on a sound financial base. But it is easier for a journalist working for the national press to rip into a product because they are not going to be ripped to pieces by their readership in the same way as they would for an incorrect statement in the trade press.

Alex Bland: I think it is less to do with criticism and more to do with investigative journalism. Are they really analysing the issue, or just toeing the corporate line?

Roger Anderson: To be honest, I think the bottom line is that the level of really informed criticism, in both trade and nationals, is pretty low.

Jonathon Whiteley: In that case, how much do you think the press agenda is driven by PR campaigns, lenders or other financial groups?

Peter Timberlake: I do not think the press agenda is driven by us. We help contribute to it, but I certainly do not think we drive it and the press is there to challenge our opinions and our thoughts and provide information.

Paul Fincham: We obviously provide information, but at the end of the day it is the responsibility of journalists whether or not they choose to publish it.

Rachel Williams: It is a bit of both. Journalists get information from lenders and brokers and other sources, but we have a responsibility and a duty to check that it is correct. We are aware that people will try to manipulate us to get their side of the story across, so it is our duty to speak to a number of sources to ensure the story is balanced. Even if we get a lender to write a feature for us, we are not going to use that lender every week. It is about balance, which means putting one lender’s view in one issue and another lender’s view in another. Just because lenders have a publicity agenda does not mean they have not got a point of view worth getting across.

Alex Bland: I think it is clear to the reader that when features have a byline by a lender, then they will know they will be talking about a topic which is of benefit to their business. There are lenders and PR companies that do provide a good service to readers, but occasionally there are lazy journalists who toe the corporate line and do not want to investigate a story, but I would say they are isolated and few and far between.

Jonathon Whiteley: Thank you very much for attending. I think we can agree that the press does play an educational role, whether it intends to or not. But ultimately individuals have to take responsibility for their own financial affairs. The role of the press is to raise awareness, stimulate debate and report in a balanced fashion.

Ben Marquand is deputy editor


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