Why did the media miss the biggest story of a generation?

IF journalism is meant to be the first draft of history, then historians are going to be baffled when they come to study this financial crisis.

They’ll look in vain for a steady narrative over the last 20 years.

Instead, they’ll get endless screeds on party politics, supported by ads for cheap mortgages. They may conclude that the advertising copy was telling the real story, while the media lost the plot.

As voices are raised against the media for stoking this current crisis, a much bigger mistake is going unremarked. How did the media miss the greatest story of our generation?

Even now, much coverage is focused on politicians – are they getting enough sleep, is Brown a hero, what would Cameron do? – as the foundations of the UK economy are transformed.

It’s like filing a report on the camaraderie of the crew as the Titanic hits ice.

The simple answer is that the media has become too simple to fathom the workings of the world.

This isn’t a dig at tabloids. You only have to listen to some veteran radio presenters flailing around with issues of finance and economics – indeed with a range of topics – to know that they are
substituting all-purpose cynicism for knowledge when cross-examining the players.

In fairness, this stuff is complex, which is why you need specialist correspondents. Thank God for Evan Davis, Robert Peston, et al.

The media profession has to ask why it has so few of these specialists, and so many political hacks.

One wouldn’t mind, but the political coverage has categorically failed to explain the conditions of our society.

I think editors looked at the massively complex working of the City and shrugged.

They ducked the main task of journalism, to take the complicated and make it simple. Those ‘business’ slots that do exist were endlessly nudged to become personal finance slots, delivered with the enthusiasm of lottery balls.

Further, the complexity of finance lead to a deference towards money.

Much as the Tory and Labour told you the market was the only game, so the media tugged its forelock to capitalism.

The City became untouchable, a magical place above the dull questions of reporters.

Will Hutton is doing sterling work in the broadcasts studios and comment pages not because he’s the only one who understands all this, but because he’s one of the few who were allowed to specialise in economic stories.

Had the City teams been treated with half the reverences of the Westminster lobby, we’d have many more Huttons.