Gary James Merrill

The revolution must wait: Economic, business and financial journalisms beyond the 2008 crisis

Although it is tempting to blame journalism's apparent failure to warn of the 2008 financial crisis on a lack of training, rigid routines or an over-reliance on elite sources, the malaise is far more deep-seated. For the last three decades, the British and American news media have seemed largely oblivious to the inherent weaknesses of free market economics and equally, the merits of alternative models. Economic and business journalisms are the inevitable products of the ideology that sustains them and in the absence of a coherent, mainstream political counterweight to neoliberalism, it is left to authors, satirists and even TV chefs to provide engaging economic and business journalism with a social dimension

Keywords: business; economics; journalism; neoliberalism; alternatives; BBC

The great industrialist Henry Ford was not particularly noted for his sociological insight but he clearly appreciated the potency of public knowledge:

It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system for, if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning (in Maguire 1957:79).

Although Ford gave no indication of the causes of such ignorance, the news media shoulders some responsibility. Indeed, economic, business and financial (EBF)[1] journalisms are inherently anthropomorphic in that their normative function is to inform people about the economic environment which they inhabit (Kinsey op cit: 160; Budd 2007: 2; Parsons 1989: 7). Although scholarly interest has been rather limited in these areas (Doyle 2006: 434) the research suggests that EBF journalisms have, at best, a patchy record of connecting with the public; explaining concepts; highlighting nascent dangers; and promoting knowledge of alternatives to the status quo.

The universal importance of economics, business and finance, combined with the inherent complexities of the subjects places a considerable burden on the news media to explain and contextualise while holding the audience’s attention. Journalists constantly struggle to produce appealing content (Corner et al. 1997: 91) and yet only around a fifth of Britons profess to being interested in business and financial news (Ofcom 2007: 25) and very few can explain basic economic concepts (see Peston 2009: 18).

It is a similar story in the United States. For example, in 1987 the Ford Foundation found the public need for quality coverage of business and economic matters: ‘remains measurably and markedly unfulfilled’ and twenty years later, American journalists were still underachieving (Roush 2006: 201). Similar deficiencies were also noted by Diana Henriques (2000) and Mark Ludwig (2002). Evidence of the efficacy of EBF journalisms is scarce on both sides of the Atlantic and Gillian Doyle’s stark assessment provides a pithy synopsis of the corpus: ‘the task of facilitating a sound public grasp over the significance of financial and economic news developments is largely being neglected’ (2006: 433.). In these terms, Ford’s nightmare of a citizenry that comprehends financial matters has little chance of being realised.

History repeats: Three centuries of irrational exuberance

The deficiencies of EBF journalisms are most evident when disaster strikes and the 2008 Financial Crisis inevitably stimulated renewed interest from academia (Tambini 2008, 2010, Marron et al 2010, Manning 2010). Such research is certainly invaluable but few scholars acknowledge that this was merely the latest in a long list of failures. Indeed, far from alerting the public to nascent dangers, the media habitually sustain booms which can lead to speculative bubbles and, hence, financial crises (Shiller 2000: 98). This has arguably been true since the early eighteenth century when coffee house gossip combined with enthusiastic reports in newsletters and pamphlets and ‘fed the frenzied trading of speculators’ prior to the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720 (Dale 2004: 17, Balen 2002: 107).

Financial journalism grew in tandem with liberal capitalism and expanded significantly through the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth (Parsons op cit: 5, 48). In this period the link between bubbles and the media strengthened despite huge improvements in communication technology. The trend continued from the 1920s to 2000, and over these years:

...the flaws of business journalism in writing about stock markets have remained almost the same: their reporting is too enthusiastic (or positive) and uncritical (Ojala and Uskali 2004: 1).

The EBF media grew considerably in size, scope and audience reach in the late-twentieth century. In the 1980s, the Thatcher and Reagan administrations promoted pro-business economic policy, market liberalisation and popular share ownership and in the 1990s, these combined with new technologies (satellite TV and then the internet) to give business and finance far more prominence than ever before (Bekken 2005: 75; Cassidy 2002: 178). Across all media, economics, business and finance are now part of the standard news offering.

Despite a century of expansion, however, there is little evidence of an improvement in the journalisms. For example, immediately before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, even the most cautious of the American financial media believed the boom would continue indefinitely (Bow 1980: 447). Seven decades later, the media was also instrumental in hyping the New Economy which spectacularly crashed in 2000. Thomas Frank maintained that the media were complicit because they eagerly promoted the ‘democratisation’ of the stock market with little regard for the risks (2001: 123). Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, conceded that the ‘financial media could have done a better job…ahead of the dotcom crash’ (Barber 2009) but other critics were far sharper. John Cassidy, for example, wrote: ‘Despite some honourable exceptions, the overall standard of reporting on the internet stock phenomenon was dismal’ (2002: 326).

The failures of business reporting are also most apparent in exceptional times and for many, Enron is the definitive example. Until the company collapsed in autumn 2001, the majority of business journalists were seemingly oblivious to Enron’s dubious accounting practices. Just months before its downfall, Enron ‘had been the business media’s poster child, praised for its ‘innovative’ practices and consistently listed among the top American corporations’ (Nieman Reports 2002: 4). In heaping such adoration on the company, the media ‘actively helped create the Enron scandal’ (Madrick op cit: 3) and yet, according to Bob McChesney: ‘Despite the vast resources devoted to business journalism in the 1990s, the media missed the developing story in toto’ (2003: 314).

Some may argue that Enron was an exception and to cite it as an example of endemic problems in business journalism is unfair. However, Danny Schechter (2009) wrote: ‘There is a unfortunate dialectic between financial failures and media failures.’ This view is supported by Dyck and Zingales, who found that the media’s inability to warn of Enron’s impending collapse was: ‘not an occasional lapse, but a systematic problem that emerges during stock market booms’ (2003: 99).

Although questions about journalism’s role in the 2008 Crisis promise greater understanding, they evoke a strong sense of déjà vu. Similar questions were posed in the wake of Enron’s collapse (for example, McChesney 2003, Doyle 2006, Madrick op cit and others) but there’s little indication that EBF journalisms have improved over the last decade. Indeed, the previous three hundred years suggest that the weaknesses are far more entrenched than many acknowledge. Even so, the public requirement is stronger than ever:

The world desperately needs good financial journalism. We need to understand the practical, ethical and editorial problems that can prevent it… (there is) …an historic opportunity to address this need (Tambini 2008: 3).

In normal times: Three lines of academic enquiry

Given the relative lack of research into EBF journalisms, it is unlikely that these problems will be understood in depth for some time. A useful starting point, however, is to assume that, like other genres, EBF ‘news items are not simply selected but constructed’ (Schudson 1989: 265). Hence, news is the product of a complex process that is influenced by a plethora of professional, commercial and cultural factors. Three factors that are particularly pronounced in EBF journalisms – ethics, routines and journalist knowledge – have become fertile ground for academic investigation.

Firstly, unlike other genres, EBF journalisms can influence the performance of the subjects and the outcome of events upon which they report. They have the unique ‘power to move markets’ (Tambini 2008: 9, Robinson 2008) and, as demonstrated in 1929, 2000 and 2008, these journalisms can influence the trajectory of the national – and even the global – economy. Consequently, journalists have an ethical responsibility to cover events accurately but without inducing panic (Wu et al 2002: 21; Kinsey op cit: 167; Marron 2010: 274). Financial journalists also need to be wary of breaking criminal laws, such as ‘market abuse’ which includes insider trading, market manipulation, conflicts of interest and non-disclosure (Tambini 2010: 162-163).

Secondly, routines strongly influence EBF news production. Gillian Doyle (2006: 448) noted that diary events – such as government economic reports and corporate results – provide an orderly and largely scheduled flow of ideas for stories. This might be convenient for journalists but Lawrence (1988) suggests that the regimented coverage of the 1980s bull market gave rise to inconsequential reporting that missed the warning signs of the 1987 stock market crash. Such a predictable schedule of pre-packaged news also means coverage becomes event-centred and episodic (Marron op cit: 271) Journalists tend to move as a herd (Payne 2008), become reliant on newswires and thus, there’s an increased risk of producing mere ‘churnalism’ (Davies 2008). Similarly, competition for publicity is intense, so business and financial journalists are bombarded by PR companies attempting to frame stories in their clients’ interest (Davis 2002: 70, Doyle 2006 :435).

Thirdly, a lack of journalist knowledge is commonly cited as a reason for the EBF media’s inability to spot the warning signs of the 2008 Crisis (Barber 2009; Fraser 2009: 51) and this has become the focus of much recent study. Training has been an unresolved and neglected issue for years (Tambini 2008: 19) particularly for reporters working on the business sections of the non-specialist mainstream media (Doyle op cit: 440-441). The training deficit was the media’s default explanation to criticism about the Enron episode (Madrick op cit: 6) and this was even acknowledged by Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson (owner of the Financial Times) in a surprisingly candid mea culpa by proxy: ‘We could have done a lot more digging (about Enron.) But business journalists often don’t know a lot about business’ (in Byrne 2002).

This was a worrying admission: if Financial Times journalists do not sufficiently understand their specialism to be an effective watchdog, what hope is there for the non-specialist media? Furthermore, although training undoubtedly played a part in the 2008 failure, there are few signs that addressing the knowledge deficiency is on the agenda. For the two leading British training councils – the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC) – multi-media skills are the top priority. While accredited courses are also expected to cover media law and public affairs, business and economics are barely mentioned on either organisations’ website (NCTJ 2011, BJTC 2011). Consequently, only a handful of British universities run specialist courses, or even modules, in economics and business journalism and there are ‘no reports of journalists rushing to enrol on accountancy courses’ (Wilby 2009).

BBC journalists and their audiences: A mini-case study

Research into ethics, routines and practitioner knowledge will undoubtedly contribute to a deeper appreciation of the nature of the journalisms. But if EBF reporters are to deliver on normative expectations, a more productive line of investigation might begin with the relationship between journalists and their audiences.

The BBC provides a revealing case study for two reasons. First, despite increasing competition from satellite channels and online providers, it remains a highly trusted source of economic and business news (Blinc Partnership 2007: 42). Second, and most crucially, the BBC has a statutory obligation to be: ‘…fair and open minded in reflecting all significant strands of opinion, and exploring the range and conflict of views’ (Neil Report in Budd op cit: 6). The BBC’s strict editorial policy applies equally to its television, radio and increasingly popular online news output (Ofcom 2007: 34). Hence, with impartiality at the heart of its journalism (BBC 2011), the BBC arguably offers the greatest hope for improving public knowledge of the economic environment and offering pluralistic perspectives of economic and business issues.

The perennial challenge facing EBF journalists is to match content with the needs of a heavily segmented, lay audience (Milne 2009, Peston in Smith 2008). Specialist publications such as the Financial Times, can safely presume strong knowledge and common interests among their readers. But popular newspapers and broadcasters need to produce content that appeals to consumers, investors, employees, the unemployed, the retired and numerous other sub-groups, all of whom require different information, have varying levels of interest and understanding, and will decode messages in their own, unique ways.

One audience building strategy is to connect economics to personal wealth – such as house prices, interest rates and pensions – and address the viewer primarily as a consumer or investor or, in business reporting, to focus on well-known brands (Tumber 1993). A second strategy is to humanise business by concentrating on personalities (Starkman in Schechter 2009: 23, Manning 2010:8). This applies equally to corporate heroes who personify a company – such as Richard Branson – or villains, such as bankers in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis who were framed as the epitome of greed and deception (Tulloch 2009: 104).

Another related strategy is to frame business as drama, complete with characters and a gripping narrative. This was the ethos of Jeff Randall who became the BBC’s first business editor in 2001 (Kelly and Boyle 2011: 230.) A few years later, he said BBC editors now ‘get’ what business is about:

If you tell the story properly, business is every bit as compelling, every bit as soap opera as politics. It's about power and influence, treachery and betrayal, money, big names and brands. Not about accountants in grey suits sitting behind desks shuffling paper (in Burrell 2004).

When Randall arrived at the BBC, he shared a widely-held belief that the organisation ‘was culturally and structurally biased against business’ (Randall in Kelly and Boyle op cit: 232). In 2007, in response to such charges, the BBC Trust commissioned a comprehensive study that looked at the impartiality of the corporation’s business reporting (Budd op cit). Chaired by Sir Alan Budd, the research revealed no evidence of a bias against business per se, but it did find that BBC business news tended to focus on consumers and the buying public’s relationship with companies (ibid: 14, 16).

Contrary to perceived left-wing sympathies at the BBC, trade unions felt their perspective was under-represented. Witnesses expressed concern that there were programmes on consumer rights but none about workers’ rights: ‘the world of work does not really feature on the BBC – and even when it does it is without the workers’ (ibid: 20). In his narrative, Budd showed sympathy with the unions’ assessment:

Around 29 million people work for a living in the UK and spend a large proportion of their waking hours in the workplace. However, little of this important part of UK life is reflected in the BBC’s business coverage (ibid: 19).

This is one of the most illuminating of Budd’s findings, particularly as it resonates with research from an earlier era. In the late 1970s, the work of the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) was widely criticised, partly because it challenged deeply held beliefs, particularly within the BBC, that television news is impartial (Deacon in Cottle 2003). The Glasgow researchers discovered that in the reporting of industrial disputes, the views of workers were marginalised while disproportionate credence, airtime and context were given to managers and the government (GUMG 1976, 1980).

It is somewhat ironic that a BBC-commissioned report focussed on perceived bias against business should concur with such radical research. Furthermore, although Budd encouraged journalists: ‘to pursue innovative ways of treating the audience as employees, citizens and investors [direct and indirect]’ (Budd op cit: 24), some believe that the BBC is too eager to assume that shareholder contentment is synonymous with universal economic wellbeing. In a debate at London’s City University, Professor Alistair Milne asked why the FTSE 100 index is quoted on every BBC News report (Milne 2009). Fellow panellist and chief BBC economics correspondent, Hugh Pym, replied : ‘… because 10 million British people are shareholders’ (Pym 2009).

This brief exchange is revealing for four reasons. First, the FTSE is of negligible value to the public because professional investors have access to market information far sooner (Schuster 2006:97). Second, two-thirds of the profits of FTSE 100 companies are earned overseas (BBC 2010), so the index only partially reflects the health of the domestic economy. Third, although many Britons are, indeed, shareholders, their cumulative investment is tiny in comparison to the financial institutions which own around 90 percent of all shares (Davis 2006: 11). And fourth, the FTSE 100 is immaterial to non-shareholders, and other indices – income statistics, poverty rates and un-paid overtime – would arguably be more relevant to, for example, almost seven million British trade union members (TUC 2010).

As with the BBC’s former business editor (see above), the views of its senior economics correspondent hint at underlying assumptions in the BBC’s coverage of economics and business. For instance, although Pym acknowledged that the media should share the blame for the 2008 crisis with governments, banks and consumers (Pym 2009a), his post-mortem of the crisis (co-authored with Nick Kochan) gave no indication that the prevailing economic ideology warranted critical analysis. Instead, Pym and Kochan noted consensus among mainstream political parties that the free market brings prosperity to all: ‘rocking the capitalist boat went out of fashion some time ago’ (2008: 3).

There are two theories about the origins of such journalistic assumptions. One states that they are derived from shared values: reporters simply reflect generally-held views. An alternative theory is that journalists are part of a dominant group in society and, in their reporting, they tend to gravitate to other members of the elite for information and then reflect and reinforce the dominant perspective in their work (Curran et al 2005: 302).

On the surface, Pym’s reluctance to criticise capitalism suggests his reporting is underpinned by commonly-held views. However, although parliamentary parties have indeed embraced neoliberalism over the last three decades, alternatives have not totally disappeared. For example, nationalisation, redistributive taxation and other pillars of post-war Keynesianism were rediscovered by the British and American governments as the 2008 crisis unfolded. What’s more, there is evidence that such policies might be popular among the general public.

In 2009, for example, a major international survey (29,000 people in 27 countries), commissioned by the BBC World Service, revealed widespread disillusionment with capitalism. In only two countries did more than 20 percent of people think capitalism was working well, and a higher proportion thought it ‘fatally flawed’. There was also significant global support for more government regulation of business and a fairer distribution of wealth (BBC World Service 2009).

Such data suggest that Pym’s statement is more in tune with the beliefs of the political and business elite than the general public, and further supporting evidence for the dominant theory can be found in the educational backgrounds of BBC journalists. Like Hugh Pym, the BBC’s current business editor Robert Peston; economics editor, Stephanie Flanders; and her predecessor, Evan Davis; all studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford University (BBC 2001, White 2005, Greenham 2011, BBC 2004).

This observation has limited value in isolation but it clearly chimes with the argument that British journalists per se lack genuine public empathy because of their privileged roots and, in particular, their education. Edwards and Cromwell, for example, point to a Sutton Trust Report which revealed the imbalance: 45 percent of leading journalists attended Oxbridge and ‘54 percent of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately’, compared to just seven percent of the general population (2009: 234-235).

No rebellion: The reinforcement of ‘professional’

Although Robert Peston also accepts the ‘slow and lingering death of financial paternalism’, and hence the pre-eminence of individual economic actors (Peston 2009: 18), it would be foolish to make bold claims about either common pro-market beliefs among BBC journalists, nor indeed a tendency to favour that ideology in their reports. Indeed, most reporters would recoil in horror at accusations of bias, and yet there is agreement among academics, that: ‘“Bias” and opinion are fundamental conditions of the production of news, not accidental pathologies’ (Curran and Seaton 1991: 174).

Edwards and Cromwell maintain that an organisation’s recruitment strategy is the original source of bias. At the BBC, they wrote, this is: ‘systemic, rooted in the very structure – who it employs, how they are chosen, who does the choosing and so on’ (2009: 36). On this basis it would be fair to assume, for example, that Robert Peston’s education and prior career – including a period as a stockbroker and nine years as a Financial Times journalist (White 2005) – would in some way influence how he sees the world of business. One would certainly expect this frame of reference to differ from that of an hypothetical rival of equal ability and knowledge who was born into a low-income family, attended a non-elite university and whose early career was spent as a researcher for a trade union.

In the absence of ethnographic studies, one can only speculate about the nuances of EBF news production process – at the BBC or elsewhere – and the extent to which the backgrounds of journalists influence the news product. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to assume that, as with other genre, a journalist’s presumed autonomy is greatly reduced once he or she has been socialised into the culture, norms, rituals and procedures of the group (Schudson op cit: 266). This process begins with recruitment, and then training, newsroom discipline and the influence of one’s peers combine to create a ‘cultural air’ which sustains and defines ‘professional’ journalists (Zelizer 2005). A cohort of reporters is, to a large extent, homogenised in its appreciation of news values and working practices, and hence its production of news (Gavin and Goddard 1998: 466).

Journalistic culture is a powerful force and one can appreciate how it might trump other factors. Indeed, the ‘increase training’ argument often fails to acknowledge that additional courses will not necessarily produce more balanced nor critical perspectives. This depends to a large extent on who has designed the curriculum. In the United States, for example, business and journalism education have a long-standing relationship: corporations have been funding training programmes and sponsoring text books since the 1970s (Dreier 1982: 126, Bekken 2005) and some newspapers hire business people to train journalists in house (Ludwig 2002: 134). In such circumstances, journalism classes would be clearly be more sympathetic to the goals of big business than stakeholders such as local communities or workers.

The UK’s training regime is less formalised but there are still hints of how course content might determine the parameters of journalists’ understanding. At the BBC, Alan Budd noted the importance of senior business journalists in knowledge transfer (Budd op cit: 21) and such informal training – by which less experienced journalists learn ‘on the job’ – is surprisingly prevalent in other news organisations in the UK (Doyle 2006: 440-441). Irrespective of who writes the text books and delivers the classes, it would seem reasonable to assume that teachers would to some extent pass on their own interpretations of the economic environment. Consequently, in the case of journalists teaching other journalists, one can appreciate how a largely-unspoken newsroom modus operandi might be reinforced to the extent that even the most enterprising of journalist would find it hard to rebel against the dominant culture.

Pluralism denied: The ideological monoculture

It is important to reiterate that economics is an inherently subjective discipline. For centuries theorists have toiled over models – and politicians have grappled with practical realities – in the quest for enhanced, sustained and universal economic wellbeing. Debates in economics are perpetual and there is no definitive answer to the basic economic problem of reconciling finite resources and infinite wants. The same is true of business: the joint stock corporation, owned by public shareholders and focussed on maximising investor returns, is just one form of commercial entity. Others include mutual organisations, worker co-operatives, private limited companies, state-owned enterprises, family-run businesses and freelances.

Although the word is rarely used outside academia, neoliberalism has been the dominant economic paradigm for the last three decades (McChesney in Chomsky 1999: 7). At the core of the ideology is the belief that ‘human wellbeing can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’ (Harvey 2005: 2). Hence, markets are the ‘primary means of organising society’ (Mansell 2011: 20) and together with low taxation; low inflation; and minimal government intervention, a fertile environment is produced in which private enterprise can flourish and hence, create wealth (Heywood 1992: 81-86). True to its roots in classical liberalism, neoliberalism places faith in the individual rather the collective and ‘business’, particularly the joint stock company, is seen as the engine of economic success.

Slavoj Žižek (2008) is one of many to note that neoliberalism has become the universal political economic framework. Echoing Francis Fukyama’s (1992) proclamation that the demise of the Soviet bloc represented the ‘end of history’ and proved the intellectual superiority of capitalism, Žižek suggests that by adopting the tenets of neoliberalism, the traditionally left-wing parties of Europe and the US, have negated neoliberalism’s negation (2008:189.) This argument resonates strongly with Hugh Pym’s assertion that few people criticise capitalism these days.

Indeed, many other British EBF reporters accept neoliberalism as a fact of life: researcher Gillian Doyle’s interviews revealed ‘passivity in relation to pro-market ideologies’ (2006: 446). In the United States media, there has been very little debate about whether ‘markets work’ (Sherman 2002:28) and the view that reduced corporate regulation and ‘free markets’ have contributed to widespread prosperity has been largely accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’(Goozner 2000: 24). Mark Fisher maintains that faith in neoliberalism is so entrenched that it is impossible to even imagine an alternative economic model (Fisher 2009: 2).

Although political parties have no ‘convincing alternative grand narrative capable of challenging neoliberalism’ (Cammaerts 2011: 48), the ideology still has plenty of credible opposition. For example, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz questions the neoliberal assumption that markets are inherently self-correcting and serve the public interest well (in Mansell 2011: 20).

Other authors have focussed on the apparent brutality of a system that prioritises unfettered profit maximisation over social concerns (Klein 2000, 2008; Monbiot 2001; Pilger 2002; Bakan 2004.) Bob McChesney branded neoliberalism ‘capitalism with the gloves off’ (in Chomsky 1999: 8) and in the absence of criticism from left-of-centre parties, counter arguments typically come from trade unions; anti-poverty, environmental and development NGOs; think-tanks and a scattering of intellectuals (Cammaerts op cit: 48).

With the world’s economies still reeling from the fallout of the 2008 Financial Crisis, one might hope that the news media would redouble its efforts to give exposure to such dissenting voices. The evidence from the last three decades, however, suggests this is highly unlikely. Many studies have, like the Glasgow University Media Group’s early work (1976, 1980), noted the marginalisation of alternative perspectives. In addition to the BBC report (Budd op cit), examples can be found in South Africa (Kariithi and Kareithi 2007), Finland (Ainamo et al 2006), and the United States (Chomsky in McChesney et al 1998, Kollmeyer 2004 and Bekken 2005.)

Such empirical research demonstrates a significant ideological dimension in EBF news. Indeed, Daya Thussu argues that neoliberalism is such a pervasive, hegemonic discourse that it has become: ‘part of the commonsense view of the world’ (2007: 134). It is also a subtle discourse: many economic and business concepts are abstract so metaphors are commonly used by reporters. By characterising ‘the economy’ (or indeed, ‘the market’) in anthropomorphic, meteorological, biological or mechanical terms, it becomes a reified, mysterious force outside of the control of people or even government (Emmison 1983, 1986). What’s more, the language and images: ‘which serve to constitute (the economy) are produced without reflection. It has become the ‘natural’ way to see … a world of normality’ (Emmison 1983: 154).

Business as unusual: The varied voices of dissent

With the normalisation and reification of neoliberalism, it is perhaps no surprise that EBF journalisms have such a poor record of warning of potential dangers in inherently volatile markets. What’s more, these journalisms have been criticised for neglecting deep-seated issues that affect millions of citizens. Poverty, unemployment, shortages of affordable housing and social deprivation are long-term problems, inexorably connected to much larger debates, and yet EBF news tends to be episodic, dealing with: ‘…single issues that emerge, occupy journalists’ and the public’s attention and then recede’ (Wu et al 2002: 33). Bob McChesney gave a blunt assessment of this tendency among American journalists:

...the virtual absence of news concerning the working class and poor is taken for granted by professional journalists. It is not seen as “self-censorship” to shape the news in such a manner. That is the genius of professionalism as a form of regulation (2003: 313).

This inability to address economic issues critically and as part of a far bigger picture, arguably characterised the non-reporting of warning signals in the prelude to the 2008 Crisis. Paul Manning argues that evidence of impending disaster was available to journalists but ‘few began to develop a comprehensive or holistic approach that might point to the broadest dangers’ (2010: 6). Professor Alistair Milne echoed Manning’s concern and said journalists rarely analyse the capitalist system, and its impact on society as a whole (Milne op cit).

Why would such a critique be absent from much reporting? Perhaps it is because, in Stuart Hood’s words, journalists interpret ‘impartiality as the acceptance of that segment of opinion which constitutes parliamentary consensus’ (Curran and Seaton 1991: 200). Hence, if politicians don’t argue for alternatives, then journalists feel no obligation to find and present them. Protestors, intellectuals or left-wing politicians may vocalise criticism of neoliberalism but, in Daniel Hallin’s terms, these groups may exist in the ‘zone of deviance’ outside of what mainstream culture accepts as normal, and hence beyond the professional codes of objectivity and fairness (in Schudson 2003: 187).

This is not to say, of course, that ‘radical’ voices are totally absent from EBF reporting. Indeed, dissenters are sometimes allowed to contribute to debates (Schudson 1989: 267; Tumber op cit: 358) and research suggests their inclusion is popular: a Glasgow University survey of television viewers, for instance, revealed that 73 percent would like to see ‘alternative’ viewpoints (such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Naomi Klein) considered ‘as part of a normal range of opinion’ (in Edwards and Cromwell op cit::13). When counter-arguments to the political consensus are eloquently and passionately aired, the audience response is often exceptional (Edwards 1998:95).

Arguably the most sustained criticism of big business in the UK can be found in Private Eye. Sharon Lockyer suggests this is because of the publication’s unique ownership structure; an apolitical editorial line; and its disregard for reader sentiment and libel threats. Hence, unlike the majority of the British commercial media, the Eye can follow a: ‘citizen-led rather than customer-led approach to journalism’ (2006: 777). The magazine is also known for its ‘comedy section’ which provides a surreal complement to its investigative journalism. Indeed, the unlikely combination of biting satire and probing journalism was also used to great effect by American film-makers Morgan Spurlock, in his comprehensive demolition of McDonald’s (Supersize Me!), and Michael Moore in his critical analysis of the American health system (Sicko) and neoliberalism itself (Capitalism: A love story).

Again, these films were extremely popular and generated debate about neglected economic and business issues. Similar innovation can be found on British television. In recent years, chef Jamie Oliver has raised public awareness of the poor quality of school meals in both the UK and the US (Jamie’s school dinners and Jamie Oliver’s food revolution) and in the process he questioned the ethics of the ‘junk’ food industry. Also on Channel 4, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall lobbied supermarkets to banish factory-farmed chickens from their shelves (in Hugh’s chicken run) and, more recently (in Hugh’s fish fight,) encouraged more than 700,000 people to join a campaign for changes in European Union fishing policy and to urge the canning industry to use only sustainable tuna.

By following a hero on his righteous mission, these programmes inject a sense of drama in order to hook the audience (Thirkell in Kelly and Boyle 2011: 242). In this sense, they are similar to popular business-entertainment programmes, such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, but unlike these latter examples, the focus is not on key components of the neoliberal paradigm (the individual, competition and profit,) but on ethical considerations (animal welfare) and the broader society (public health.) Although it may not be immediately apparent, television chefs and satirical film-makers have produced the most creative, inclusive and compelling examples of economics and business journalism of recent years.

The future of alternatives

Gretchen Morgenson, of The New York Times, said that the media’s failure to ring the warning bells about Enron should have promoted a new era of ‘widespread scepticism’ among business journalists (in Sherman 2002: 28). A decade later, with the world’s economies still suffering from the 2008 Financial crisis, there are precious few signs of a critical instinct (Schechter 2009:20, Manning 2010, Marron et al 2010).

When three centuries of the EBF media’s contribution to booms and busts is considered, it is hardly surprising that journalism failed the public in 2008. Furthermore, over the last three decades, and irrespective of the trajectory of the stock market, there has been little indication that EBF journalisms in the UK or US have paid much attention to the views of those who dispute the merits of neoliberalism or indeed the informational needs of the full spectrum of stakeholders. The neglect of structural problems and an apparent lack of interest in alternative economic and business models strongly suggest the problems in journalism stretch far beyond micro-factors such as routines and training.

In his 2009 Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture, BBC business editor Robert Peston said financial journalism needs ‘to empower people to participate fully in democracy’ (Peston 2009: 18). Few would disagree with this statement but it is unfortunate that probing the foundations of the dominant ideology is seemingly out of bounds for many journalists. This is painfully ironic: if there were ever a time when the world needed to dissect neoliberalism and assess its alternatives, it is now.

Although the media are not simply ‘passive transmission belts of capitalist propaganda’ (Dreier 1982: 123) and theories of elite domination are far from infallible, we are evidently a long way from a truly democratic and inclusive media that might facilitate greater public debate. Reporting from the point of view of citizens, rather than consumers or shareholders, would obviously necessitate a widespread change in emphasis of the news product: whereas investors want enthusiasm, citizens need a high level of scepticism (Henriques in Harber 2009). But as things stand: ‘commercially-led financial news production… is not really designed for and is unlikely to succeed in any public educational role’ (Doyle 2006: 451).

But it is not all doom and gloom. The mainstream broadcast media occasionally produces exceptional documentaries that investigate errant companies or analyse elements of the broader economic world. In the printed media, progressive publications such as the Guardian, the New Internationalist and the New Statesman in the UK, and The New York Times, the Nation and Mother Jones in the US often cast big business and neoliberalism in a critical light. And then, of course, there’s the satirists and television chefs who have taken economic and business journalism in a new direction.

But the fact remains that, when compared to viewpoints that support neoliberalism, dissident voices are rare in the mainstream EBF media (Payne 2008, Cottle 2003: 161-162). What’s more, progressive publications are unlikely to reach a mass audience and television documentaries provide only infrequent criticism, and typically chip away at small parts of the neoliberal edifice. The internet offers some salvation and there is certainly a surfeit of online opinion but the internet is not (yet) a primary news source (Fenton 2011: 68). Furthermore, the larger, more established news providers continue to dominate in a way ‘that limits the possibilities for increased pluralism’ (ibid. 64).

Thanks to the near monopoly of the commercial news media in the US (and the reasons outlined above,) it is unlikely that American citizens will receive regular critiques of neoliberalism. In the UK, however, the BBC’s commitment to impartiality, the quality of its reporting, and relative freedom from the profit imperative makes it arguably the likeliest candidate to air dissident views on a regular basis.

There is widespread agreement among journalists and academics alike that the EBF media needs to improve its game, and the first step to a increased pluralism is to acknowledge that neoliberalism is not the only economic model. Politics extends far beyond the walls of parliament and, to fulfil their fourth estate duties, journalists need to regularly give airtime, page space and credence to ideas beyond the mainstream. Only then will the public be able to make up their own minds about the merits of the dominant economic ideology and its alternatives.


[1] Although they are interrelated and often cover similar territory, economic, business and financial journalisms are not synonymous. For the purposes of this study, the following delineations apply: ‘economic journalism’ applies to macro-economic issues (inflation, trade, unemployment, wages, poverty, etc.) ‘Business journalism’ relates to the activities of companies and industries; and ‘financial journalism’ applies to financial markets, investments and consumer finance reporting.


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Note on the contributor

Gary James Merrill is a senior lecturer in journalism at Buckinghamshire New University, and is nearing completion of his PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His thesis, Prophets or profits: British economic and business reporting from 1999 to 2008, compares and contrasts how UK broadsheets and the BBC News website covered three important economic and business issues during the Labour Party's most recent period in government. Gary previously taught journalism at the University of Glamorgan and the University of Bedfordshire and has provided training courses for the National Union of Journalists, ITV Wales and S4C. From 2001 to 2008, he taught at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and before his teaching career, he was a freelance business journalist specialising in the technology industry.