Monday, 19 July 2010

Financial journalists should take responsibility too

In our information-soaked age, it is shocking to see how little our newspapers know of money. Though newspapers are hardly advertisements for financial acumen, as they lose both money and readers at a quite astonishing rate, but one would have thought that finance was one area of our newspapers immune from the distractions of celebrity culture and sensationalist reporting. Surely, money would be too important to trivialise and people wouldn’t make mistakes over simple numbers.

A general reader glancing through The Financial Times - the high point of London’s financial journalism - would be forgiven for thinking that readers of the finance pages are treated with a certain respect. It might be not be very entertaining, but it looks pretty solid, what with lots of numbers and graphs, and clever-looking men staring out from columns full of weighty-sounding economics talk.

But it was out of these pages that emerged the single biggest crisis the world has seen, certainly in the last decade, maybe even the last half-century. Somewhere in those boring pages lay the causes of the biggest economic crisis since the Second World War, a crisis that came close to tipping the western world into depression and collapse, that loaded taxpayers with hundreds of billions of pounds of debt, and longer-term ramifications that are only just starting to be felt.

As a financial journalist reporting on the world of credit throughout the build-up to the crisis, I had a remarkable vantage point to understand the credit boom, and also to get a sense of what would happen if the house of cards came tumbling down. During this time I started - but never finished - a book about debt.

It is damning criticism of my business, financial journalism, that we failed to look hard at the credit boom and call it for what it was, and what it would mean. Instead, what happened, was we stood up the day after it happened and pointed to all the reasons why we knew it would have happened, and highlighted the small number of examples were we mentioned it in passing. Then a few months passed, and we forgot everything we might have learnt from the biggest disaster our industry has known in recent times, and reverted to populism.

Blame the banker was an easier game to play than the intellectually difficult, and quite worrying, truth: that ignorance was central to the crisis, that a profound and systematic intellectual failure undermined almost every one of the world’s financial and government institutions. And while it was not journalism’s fault that credit boomed, and assets bubbled, and banks tweaked structures, and governments’ took advantage, it was journalism’s responsibility to tell the world what was going on.

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