Does churnalism damage your wealth ( and your pension)?

Nigel Lawson: A Euro take on dangers of churnalism.Pic courtesy Daily Telegraph

I am not a natural fan of Nigel Lawson. I didn’t agree with his slashing the higher tax rate when he was chancellor. I don’t agree with his views on climate change. I am sceptical of his Eurosceptism. (though I think there is a major democratic deficit in the EU).

Yet in an interview  I did for Exaro News (see http://bit.ly/vOq5Ap ) he makes a rather clever observation about the relationship between the current  market turbulence and the standard of reporting by journalists.

 He says the combination of  superficial reaction by the markets to the growing crisis in the Eurozone and the unquestioning nature of  journalists covering current financial events in Europe is making a bad situation incredibly worse.

What he says is that journalists  reporting the recent crisis in Greece and Italy – produce instant reports to meet a 24/7 agenda that are superficial and proved wrong within 48 hours.  The practice of this press release journalism – known as churnalism – is brilliantly dissected by my friend Guardian hack Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News.

The market traders – equally superficial also working to that  same punishing 24/7 schedule believe the press headlines and make equally wrong calls – pushing shares, currencies and debt interest rates up and down like a yo-yo.

You might say so what – it’s only a game played by a load of overpaid market gamblers and equally (sometimes) overpaid superficial hacks. But there is a very serious point.

With the demise of the final salary and public sector pension – hundreds of millions of people are relying on their future wealth and happiness on investments made by these people to fund their lifestyle in their old age.

 It does not help anybody but the most extreme speculators that these are now subject to such superficial judgements and reporting. The losers are the general public, you and me, who could have even lower returns from market madness.

 Lawson’s point suggests the need for some mature market traders. It also makes the case for the relevance of  real journalism and proper analysis. Another good reason why we need good reporters who have time to think and look beyond superficial statements and gloss  made by politicians, both in the media and the blogosphere. Otherwise it could cost us a lot of money.

Incidently he also has the opposite view  to George Osborne, the present Tory chancellor, about what  should happen to the Euro ( this article is at http://bit.ly/t79TJV )

Why the Tories have only themselves to blame for not reining in BBC excesses

Jeremy Hunt : Playing a blinder in making sure the public don't know too much. Pic Courtesy: The Guardian

Remember the great fuss from the Conservatives on how they were going to hold the BBC to account, expose those mega salaries paid to Graham Norton and Jeremy Paxman and make sure the taxpayer got the best value for their money from the BBC.

Well if you beleive  culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and Lib Dem culture spokesman Don Foster, it will be all happening from next year in the new cash frozen agreement to fund the BBC. He has spent the last year telling us about his success in allowing Parliament’s National Audit Office the right to launch any inquiry it likes into whether the BBC is value for money.

To quote him directly: “It is right that licence-fee payers have confidence that the BBC is spending money wisely, so I am pleased that the NAO now has the right to full access to BBC information. Its new power to decide which areas of activity to scrutinise will increase transparency while maintaining the BBC’s independence.”

In fact this statement is the worst kind of spin and churnalism. The hilarious fact is that the national papers that were critical of the BBC, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph plus for that matter the Huffington Post website  ( see it here http://huff.to/vDq6y5 ) fell for the whole thing, hook line and sinker.

How do we know this to be true? Well reluctantly after both the NAO and culture ministry had refused to reveal it,  all the correspondence between the remarkably named Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, Jeremy Hunt and the Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust and his predecessor Sir  Michael Lyons, were released under a  Freedom of Information request to Exaro News, the new investigative website I work for. You can see  the two detailed factual articles at http://www.exaronews.com/ .

What they reveal is that Amyas – the nearest person we have in Britain to ” Mr Taxpayer” was engaged in a bloody war of attrition with the BBC and Mr Hunt on behalf of you, the licence fee payer, to get proper unfettered access to the BBC and that he lost.

At one stage he was extremely fed up.  In Whitehall language he wrote, ” “I am concerned that audit access that depends on continuing agreement between the government and the BBC rather than on statute leaves important matters unresolved and may mean that, in practice, the coalition’s proposals may not take things much further forward in terms of independent scrutiny of the BBC.”

In even more stark language he said:”“I am disappointed that it remains your view that my reports should reach Parliament via the BBC Trust and secretary of state.” “It raises the possibility that the BBC Trust or the secretary of state could redact material or, indeed, not publish the report.” You can  download all the letters at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport website See http://bit.ly/ujwp60 if you want to trawl through them.

The reason why this public official is so cross is plain to see. Why he might have the right to investigate what he likes, he is shackled by what he can find out. For a start all those BBC stars can protect their deals from public scrutiny because he has no statutory right of access and cannot override the Data Protection Act.  Even the Royal Household is not so well protected from this and the mega salaries, also paid by the taxpayer, and  the rest of Whitehall can be  scrutinised.

Also no other organisation  examined by the NAO can delay the publication of a critical report by running off to the secretary of state.

Hunt also rejected giving the right of the NAO to audit the BBC accounts – something I am told auditors find extremely useful because  throws up very quickly information when money is misspent.

  He told Morse: “I do not intend to give the NAO statutory access. “I am not persuaded that I should require the BBC to appoint the NAO as its external auditor. I do not consider this is a necessary step in ensuring that the government commitment on NAO access is achieved.”

 Finally he put a gun to his head: ” “If we do not reach agreement, the NAO will not have access to the BBC at least until there is another chance to review the agreement in 2016.”

Hunt has played a blinder over this. He convinced the media that he is Mr Good Guy when actually he is a baddie. The trouble is that  it is you, the licence payer, who have been conned. You could tell  him if you want to. His e-mail is jeremy.hunt@culture.gsi.gov.uk.