Blanket coverage of the withdrawal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was another graphic illustration of the dominant position of financial news in today’s 24/7 media environment. But for once there was – at least to begin with – a level playing field.
By using a government website to make the declaration that the Honours Forfeiture Committee had made its decision, Downing Street circumvented the anonymous briefings which drive so much of the financial news agenda.
A statement was posted on the Cabinet Office’s website at 5pm (31.1.2012) stating that it would be announced in the London Gazette that the knighthood conferred on Goodwin had been “cancelled and annulled”. The scale and severity of his actions as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland made it an exceptional case; he had brought the “honours system into disrepute.”
Headlines on the front pages of next day’s national newspapers denounced Goodwin in the lurid terms which have dogged him for the last four years – a level of abuse which has placed “Fred the Shred” on a par with the former mineworkers’ president Arthur Scargill who was turned into a similar hate figure thirty years ago.
From the very moment Goodwin was forced to resign in 2008 after RBS had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, he was subjected to a sustained campaign of press abuse, the kind of blanket character assassination not seen since the 1980s when the trade union leaders who stood out against Margaret Thatcher had their reputations trashed by the tabloids.
Headline writers have found Goodwin an easy prey and in the immediate aftermath of the RBS rescue he was dogged for weeks by headlines demanding an apology. When he finally said “sorry” in front of a House of Commons committee it triggered a memorable Sun headline “Scumbag Millionaires” (11 February, 2009) - a play on the title of the film of the moment, Slumdog Millionaire.
Goodwin’s other infamous achievement as chief executive – the ruthless downsizing of the RBS staff – earned him another equally grabby nickname “Fred the Shred” which lived on in innumerable headlines the moment he was stripped of his knighthood. (“Fred the pleb!” Metro, 1 February, 2012).
Nonetheless when looked at in terms of government communication, the clarity of the Cabinet Office’s statement could not have been bettered – there was no need for the endless speculation which often surrounds financial stories because, unlike so many institutions in the City of London, the Cabinet Office, had published a statement online which was available simultaneously – and on the record – to all journalists.
Selective and anonymous briefings have become the regular conduit for releasing financial news – a practice which has given financial correspondents considerable pulling power in the rankings of news values and has turned some of them into household names.
Unlike their former counterparts, the labour and industrial correspondents of the 1980s, financial journalists are rarely held to account to anything like the same degree. Speculative stories are allowed to run unchallenged because the leaders of most City institutions have no intention – or even wish – to take on journalists head to head.
In the view of Allister Heath, editor of City AM – in a commentary on the way RBS handled the controversy over the £1 million bonus for Goodwin’s successor Stephen Hester – the business community has been pathetic when it comes to responding to the news media and prefers to hide behind public relations advisers and lobby groups.
“Few members of our business and financial elite are willing to talk – and especially not on the record...Doing deals behind closed doors – UK Plc’s favourite strategy – fails in moments such as these”.
Heath said it was crazy that business leaders were refusing to fight back over agreed bonuses when faced by years of weak growth and real terms public spending cuts. “The Treasury may say reassuring things to them in private – but you just need a few tabloid front pages, a push by the broadcasters and hence a big enough row for agreements to be torn up.” (City AM, January 31, 2012)
Stephen Hester’s belated decision to give up his bonus – yet another exclusive for the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston – was a case in point. James Moore, the Independent’s financial commentator, said it was left to the “army of RBS spin doctors (there are more than 40, plus agencies)” to brief journalists that it was his personal decision to relinquish £1 million in shares.
The rest of the RBS directors remained mute while the scandal engulfed Hester and the RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton did “a marvellous impersonation of the invisible man of British banking.” (Independent, January 31, 2012)
Robert Peston’s exclusive – he had star billing and a personal name check in the BBC’s Ten O’clock News headlines (“Robert Peston has learned that Stephen Hester has turned down his bonus”) – was a classic example of selective briefing; a well-respected correspondent with the biggest audience got the vital confirmation just in time, the kind of tip-off which all too often has eluded other journalists.
The refusal of bankers, like so many of their colleagues in the City of London, to engage with the news media is a far cry from the 1980s when powerful union leaders were rarely off the airwaves. The financiers’ argument is that they will not be given enough time to make their case and will invariably be misrepresented by the media.
Despite the all-out press criticism of the wildcat strikes and mass picketing of the industrial scene in the 1970s and 1980s – and the comparable difficulty which the trade union movement faced in getting a fair hearing – union leaders like Arthur Scargill never backed away from confronting the media.
He used the vilification he endured as a weapon with which to attack journalists – a tactic exemplified by his reaction to stories suggesting he had given a Heil Hitler salute at a miners’ rally – the Daily Star published the photograph under the headline “Mine Fury” (15 May, 1984) but print workers refused to publish the headline chosen by the Sun’s editorial team and instead there was an explanation on the front page for the missing photograph.
Scargill used his experience to enliven his regular denunciation of reporters at rallies and demonstrations:
“I wanted to wave to all the union members here, had it not been for the fact that one of these vermin here might have taken a photograph of me waving my arms in the air and then written something underneath it. (Cheers) Throughout this dispute, day after day, television, radio and the press have consistently put over the views of the coal board and government even when they have been exposed as being guilty of duplicity and guilty of telling lies, not only to the House of Commons but also to the British public, this bunch of piranha fish will always go on supporting Mrs Thatcher.” (More cheers) (NUM rally, Jubilee Gardens, London, June 1984)
Illustrations: Daily Mail, February 1, 2012; Sun, February 11, 2009; Daily Star, May 15, 1984; Sun, May 15, 1984.