Friday, February 13, 2009

Economy: How responsible are the media for the global financial crisis?

By Kathleen Moore - RFE/RL

In September 2007, the BBC broke a huge story: troubled bank Northern Rock was to get an emergency loan from Britain's central bank. The next day, anxious depositors queued up to withdraw their cash in the first run on a bank in Britain in around 150 years.

One year later, during perhaps the most intense week in the credit crisis, Britain's Lloyds bank was reported to be in talks to buy its rival, HBOS. Shares in HBOS soared.

These were among a series of major scoops that catapulted BBC reporter Robert Peston to national attention, and made financial journalists part of last year's biggest news story.

So much so that there have been concerns that media coverage -- in tone or substance -- might have exacerbated the crisis.

Member of Parliament (MP) John Pugh, for example, has criticized some of it for being dangerously overdramatic.

"We can't honestly say the situation we have at the moment is totally explicable on economic grounds alone," says Pugh, who introduced a motion in Parliament this month noting what he said was the BBC's readiness "to further dramatize accentuate and underline economic woes."

"I saw a disconnect between what people were saying in everyday life and what people were hearing on the news broadcasts in the evening. Many people in business said, 'things are tough, things are harsh, but maybe not as dramatically bad as the media represents it,"' Pugh says.

"Nonetheless, if the media persists in putting the worst case out, then things will deteriorate [by] themselves."

'Just Doing Our Job'

This month some influential financial reporters were called to answer MPs' questions on their role in the crisis and whether journalists should face restrictions during periods of crisis.

Peston of the BBC was among them. Asked if he was responsible for the run on Northern Rock, he said, "I have obviously given a lot of thought to this and the answer is 'no.'"

Echoed by his fellow journalists, Peston said the troubled banks were heading for failure anyway and that reporters had been doing their jobs by sounding the alarm.

The real problem with Northern Rock, he said, was its bad condition, that it had relied too heavily on "wholesale" funding from other financial institutions.

"What led to the collapse of Northern Rock was not the retail run, it was the wholesale run, it was the institutions refusing to fund this bank, and frankly Northern Rock would have collapsed, would be where it is today irrespective if there had been that retail run," he said.

"It was plainly a big story at the time, that the money was being withdrawn by retail investors, but that was not what did for Northern Rock."

From Eastern Europe To Asia

It's not just Britain that's put the bearers of bad financial news under scrutiny, or worse.

n Latvia, an economist and university teacher, Dmitrijs Smirnov, was detained by police for two days in November 2008 on suspicion of undermining the country's financial stability.

His mistake was to tell a newspaper that the national currency was ripe for a devaluation and advising people to exchange their lats.

In South Korea, a hugely popular blogger faces up to five years in prison on charges of spreading false information that prosecutors say led to a sharp fall in the value of the won.

And the United Arab Emirates has introduced a draft media law that could see journalists fined for publishing information that damages the country's reputation or economy.

Case For Restrictions?

In Britain, journalists and media groups have bristled at the suggestion there might be a need for greater regulation.

"Regulation of the press will not solve the problem," "Financial Times" editor Lionel Barber told the early February Parliamentary hearing: "This is a matter of a catastrophic failure of management of risk, there were failures in regulation, and you should not be looking at the press as any way responsible."

A related question is whether financial journalists should operate at times of crisis under certain reporting restrictions, like those covering stories relating to national security.

Under that voluntary code of conduct , known as the "DA-Notice" system, the British government can ask media not to report information that might endanger national security.

Such requests are not legally binding and so can be ignored, at least in theory.

"Is there a case for a D-notice, or an F-notice for finance? I think that's a good question," "The Guardian's" Simon Jenkins told the hearing.

"All that would mean in these circumstances is probably a telephone call from the governor or the Bank of England to an editor saying, 'please leave off this for five hours because we're going to rescue this bank.' Now I think it would be an odd editor who wouldn't at least take that call."

However, Britain's Newspaper Society, in its evidence to the Parliamentary committee, said such notices would not be appropriate for financial reporting.

The society, which represents local and regional media, said that "to somehow equate and elevate reporting on financial mismanagement with the defense of the realm seems, at the least, a questionable analogy."

It also said the idea for restrictions appeared to have been prompted not by shoddy reporting, but by the opposite -- "that the media has been all too accurate in its reportage."

'Pre-Crisis Failings'

Still, some suggest the media may have more of a case to answer in how they handled not the crisis itself, but the run-up to it.

"Here journalists can or should hold their hands up and say, 'perhaps we didn't sound the alarm bells as early as we might have done,'" says Marie Kinsey. a former financial journalist who teaches at the University of Sheffield.

"There is a sense that they too almost swallowed the line that the bankers put across [about] these wonderful financial instruments, [about] words people hadn't used before, derivatives and all the rest of it, what was happening to risk," Kinsey adds.

"People didn't really grasp early enough, or shout loudly enough that there might be a problem here, that we'll be reaping consequences sooner rather than later."

For some, the crisis most of all is a reminder that journalists are subject to professional codes of conduct that oblige them to report responsibly and accurately.

In a speech late last year, Richard Lambert, head of the CBI employers' body and a former newspaper editor, criticized alarmist or misleading stories on the crisis and the media watchdog's failure to take action against them.

"Careless headlines or injudicious reporting," he said, "risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of a very serious nature."

Where 'Crisis' Is A Dirty Word

To be sure, there appears to be no major drive to impose reporting restrictions on Britain's financial journalists. There have been no such calls from the financial sector, and the parliamentary hearing was just one part of a broad inquiry into the banking crisis.

But the debate in a country with a vibrant free press could be watched with interest in countries where media restrictions are more the norm.

Already in Russia, for example, there are signs authorities are clamping down on financial journalists whose articles are deemed too pessimistic.

One prominent business newspaper, "Vedomosti," was accused of inciting extremism after it published an article late last year on the social unrest the economic crisis might prompt.

Others have been warned over stories deemed too frank about the extent of Russia's economic woes.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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