The dilemma faced by journalist Mike Stanhope in Not Exactly True
I remember listening in dismay to the TV correspondents who reported on the 2008 financial crash. Night after night, they would tell us in lugubrious tones how the contagion was spreading; how it was an inevitable result of past failings; and how things could only get worse.
What they were saying turned out to be broadly true, but somehow their constant unremitting negativity seemed to me to be adding fuel to the fire. Financiers are human when all’s said and done. Like many of us, at the end of the day a lot of them will probably slump down in front of their TV with a gin and tonic in their hand. And what will they hear? That things are going from bad to worse. So will that negativity help to drive their thinking and influence the actions they take next day? If course it will! And those actions may well make matters worse still.
So do I want reporters to lie, and tell us all is well when in reality it’s not? Of course not. Sticking one’s head in the sand never did anyone any good. But if you hear often enough that something is broken and can’t be mended, inevitably you’ll start to believe it. The drip-drip-drip effect will take its toll.
If merely reporting it makes matters worse, is that an appropriate outcome?
This raises what I think is a very valid question about the role of journalists in conveying bad news. If merely reporting it makes matters worse, is that an appropriate outcome? I would seriously question it. Take the instance of a bank that is teetering on the edge of collapse. It might stand a chance of recovery if left to its own devices, but aggressive reporting of its problems could prompt a run in which consumers rush to draw their money out. Net result: a possible collapse is almost instantly turned into a certainty.
You might argue that social media has sidelined journalists in this debate; a thousand voices shouting about problems might seem to outweigh the impact of a few select reporters – even high-profile ones. But many of those thousand disparate voices will have based their comments on hearsay and speculation. By contrast, front-rank journalists bring authority and gravitas to the message. I sometimes think they don’t appreciate extent of their influence.
Mike’s predicament in Not Exactly True
In my latest mystery novel, Not Exactly True (published March 2023), I explore the predicament of a journalist who publishes a negative story about a business, but it then threatens him with a libel suit. He resolves to prove his story was true, but as he gets to know the company and the people in it he starts to feel defensive towards it, and is reluctant to hasten its demise by further negative reporting.
Here’s part of an early exchange between the journalist, Mike Stanhope, and Patrick Hurst, his publishing director, who is keen to fend off the libel suit:
Hurst sighed. “Unfortunately, Mike … adverse reports like this can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy. Simply sowing the seeds of doubt can make the story true.”
“But it can also help protect suppliers and employees.”
“Very laudable, but that’s not our job.”
At this stage Mike still feels his story was justified, but later a financial advisor tells him:
“I like the way you defended Warriners’ interests when we last met. Most journalists are utterly dispassionate about these things. If a company is going bust, their attitude is ‘So be it.’ I can see the logic of that, but sometimes it can be … tiresome, shall I say?”
“Hard-core journalists would see any show of sympathy as a fault.”
“That’s why I’m not talking to a hard-core journalist.”
“Huh! Story of my life.”
He gave a fulsome laugh. “Be glad you have a bit of integrity.”
I won’t give the game away by revealing what actually happens to the company in the book. Suffice it to say that Mike plays a significant role in the outcome. But the bigger question is whether the kind of caution he exhibits is justified in the wider scheme of things, or whether journalists should simply report and be damned.
My own view? Life is seldom as simple as that. Also I don’t like self-fulfilling prophecies. I feel the press’s job is to report the news, not create it. Sometimes there’s a fine line between the two, but people with as much influence as front-line reporters should be taking the trouble to work out where it lies, and paying it the respect it deserves.
Your case for journalists perhaps resisting the instinct to report bad news if it makes the news worse is fair – to a point. But you haven’t chosen the best example to demonstrate this.
As we know, financial markets are motivated by the wildebeest mentality of mass stampede when alarmed. So it hardly needs a newspaper to create panic. As investors don’t mind taking the profits when the stampede is in the other direction, they hardly deserve much sympathy either.
We shouldn’t forget that while financial gamblers are panicking about bad news, they are probably being fed exaggerated good news and lies by government and the Bank of England to reassure them. Is it the journalist’s role to mislead us in the interests of propping up such a frail and frivolous system, or to provide balance?
No one in Britain ever faced criminal charges after the 2008 crash, and it took 10 years to institute part of the “tighter regulatory framework” which everyone agreed the financial sector needed. Yet shortly before the present alleged crisis, arguments absurdly started to emerge for a relaxation of these rules. So let’s not blame the messengers if the self-serving parasites, who are largely responsible for the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the UK, again find themselves out of control.
That said, the media of course have a responsibility for care in delivering news. So reports that could risk public over-reaction to pandemics, or that make measures to tackle the climate change crisis seem hopeless might be a cause for more serious concern. Unless, of course, one believes that overreaction might not be such a bad thing. So even here the argument is far from clear-cut.
I haven’t had a chance yet to follow Mike Stanhope’s latest adventure. But it sounds as if he’s in for another tricky one.
Interesting. On reflection, I agree that the financial crisis was probably not the ideal example of what I was getting at. For many of the reasons you cite, journalists reporting the crash had an important balancing role to play in shining a light on past malpractice and opportunism.
Even so, I feel that their very vocal and unremitting negativity probably added to the general sense of despondency that characterised the public mood for a long time after the crash. But perhaps there was never any real prospect of escaping that.
I’m now wondering if maybe when I wrote my blog I was thinking of a rather special case – one where a company is in danger of collapse, and the mere act of reporting this makes the collapse more likely. Here I think the issue is much more subtle than in my original example. Giving the company’s problems a high profile can help some people by harming others, and it’s a matter of value judgement which people you favour.