Blog : BOARD TALK
|Posted on February 19, 2015 at 6:55 AM|
Journalist Peter Oborne's own account on why he resigned from Britain's Telegraph newspaper puts in the spotlight an issue that is never discussed - corporate governance and the media. In fact, until very recently in the UK, 'corporate governance' as a subject was dismissed, even considered rather amusing, often described - even as recently as last year - as being 'for anoraks.'
Mr Oborne's resignation is also a striking example of where the buck stops if we are to have transparency and real discussion of the issues facing business and society: an individual sense of accountability.
Journalists are no different from employees of any other business, in that they are answerable to their managers, or editors - who set the tone. There are meant to be 'Chinese walls' between advertising and editorial, but advertising is harder and harder to come by - which puts pressure on the business. It's that supply chain issue again. What are the terms on which senior management agrees to do business?
The consumers - the general public - pick their own newspapers. Often that it is by how individuals 'lean' in political terms. The same corporate story may be depicted from a different stance - and the clue is often in the headline. The most obvious example is on stories regarding executive pay: The Guardian is more likely to focus on inequality and income discrepancies, whereas the Financial Times may decide to focus on how limits on pay mean that British business will lose the best talent.
To some extent, this is changing to reflect societal pressure - but you get my drift. Regardless of the 'slant' there is a general expectation however, that what you read in the mainstream media is broadly 'true.' But that expectation is clearly misguided.
It's very hard to be a journalist in 2015 and to survive making a living. In that respect I daresay it's no different than working in many other industries. But if, like me, you are 'self-employed', it's even harder to wrestle with the issue of accountability.
I was a regular contributor to the FT from late 2010 to the summer of 2013. Somewhere there is a 'contract' I signed as a regular contributor. In that period I had more than 75 pieces published across Executive Appointments, in print and online as well as on the FT non-executive director site. Then the editor changed - but I was both surprised and pleased to be wooed and asked to stay on the team.
I had proved able to deliver interviews with senior business figures whom I approached. I considered these interviews to be a 'taking of the pulse' of the individual - a mix of the personal and the professional, a way of understanding where they started from and how they had arrived at their current role. You will find them on this site.
They were for a recruitment section - so there was a clear template at the start. But as I did more and more interviews I built a lot of trust, and therefore a lot of excellent contacts at CEO and Chairmen level. I treated this more as human profiling than investigative journalism. Nevertheless, when people trust you, you learn a lot 'on background.'
But when I was suddenly asked to interview 'with an agenda' ie a very specific negative theme to be explored for that slot, I declined and suggested the editor do the interview. "It's not what I do. I will listen and see what he says - and then I will write it up. If you already know what you want, you write it" I said.
Then I was reassured, and flattered by the insistence I would do it better - so I did the interview - and came away hugely impressed.
For the first time, I did not see any queries regarding that interview until the night before it went to press. Two paragraphs quoting "senior sources" at the FTSE 100 plc had been inserted reflecting very badly on the interview candidate, and also introducing that initial hidden 'agenda.'
I was deeply shocked and I had no choice. I could not agree to that interview being published with my name on it.
There is more, but that's enough. I have not written since for the FT. But this isn't about my mini Oborne moment. Two things are important. The first is that there were just three people involved - me, the interview candidate and the editor. And yet in that dynamic lay enormous power in terms of casting aspersions on an individual's reputation.
The second thing is that newspapers are often very siloed places. I wanted to think this could go all the way up to the editor, but if it did he forgot to reply to my emails.
There's one last point I would like to make about mainstream media. It's promotional, so you can stop reading now, if you like.
As we learn more every day about commercial pressure - like most journalists my main source for news is Twitter - it is worth thinking about whether my idea to use this website as a mini platform for editorial content with sponsorship (see Home Page) is really that silly.
I have journalistic credibility, integrity, a DIY online platform - and considerable social media engagement. What more do you need in 2015 to get the message out ? At least you know who you are dealing with.
NOTE: Thank you ICSA Software - which has sponsored this blog with no editorial control since July 2013. We agreed the deal over lunch, we never signed a contract and they have always paid promptly: and mindful of the pressures on a small business - far more than I can say for many clients.