Freelance journalist Simon Read brought me sharply to attention when he wrote recently about whether anyone reads newspapers anymore. The march of on-line and the ability to get anything on Twittersphere, Messenger or Whatsapp has totally changed “communication”. As Trump continually condemns fake news, the challenge we all face is deciding who is gaslighting who.
Simon is concerned that without accessing newspapers people are less informed. News is now increasingly sourced on-line where some deliverers might not be terribly legitimate or could be pursuing their own agenda. In print media the tendency is still to fully research, check sources and, for critical stories, a lawyer will have reviewed the copy. On-line the race to be first and generate headlines (click-bait) is the most common driver. Hundreds of stories can be published without consideration of importance, priority or implication as there is limitless space and if challenged it can be electronically erased. Much harder in print where space is at a premium and the laws of libel well defined.
The more liked or shared a story the more “coverage” it gets whether it is true or not. In the world of money where trust is the one common currency that most consumers crave, we in the industry should wake up and take notice. When “tongue in cheek” the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee asked the Chief Executive of the FCA if he reads the newspapers it was because many journalists had been trailing concerns about the ill-fated Neil Woodford Equity Income Fund, which the FCA has apparently been blind-sided on. But most of the stories were in print, not obvious in the on-line space.
It is this move to a new world where the traditional things that gave financial services an element of perceived safety and stability are challenged that should cause us all to think again. I am fortunate in that I am gifted space to give opinion in a variety of medium. It is a privilege but also a responsibility. Whilst I am paid to represent the interests of my member firms, I have always been clear to my employers that I will never defend wrong-doing or operate against consumers interests. Those employed by commercial firms do not always have that luxury. The independence of journalism not tainted by the income of advertisers, the agenda of publishers or a view to their next job in PR has to be guarded and enshrined.
The march of the PR firm spewing forth promotional material masquerading as research and firms enhancing their scale to impress investors should be sorely resisted. My concern is that the need for on-line content and a headline that drives the all important advertising revenue click rate is diminishing our breadth and independent thought.
Recently I found myself watching an excellent piece from the 1950’s where Orson Welles discussed the rationale for his War of the Worlds “newsflash” which brought America to panic and him death threats as well as the rights to make one of the best cult films in Citizen Kane. Back then he was trying to get the public to understand that they should not blindly believe all they were told by radio or television. Because it arrives on screen or in your home it does not automatically derive integrity.
The need to trust and be trusted is a core aspect of financial services. We need to be guardians of the mortgage brand and its reputation and all responsible firms should take this seriously. Lenders and intermediaries need to ensure that our partnerships and communications are built on integrity and the culture we respect is based on the right headlines.