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 twenty 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 – that the world was built on paper lies?

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. Its 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 veteran Today 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.

The irony is that the media obsessed about party politics while failing to recognise the biggest political story of the age – Conservative and Labour government’s had traded real power for tax revenue; they let the City rule the world, so long as there was money to balance the Treasury books.

The paradox is that media coverage usually is determined by advertising spend – if you want car ads, you have a motoring correspondent. But political parties spend as good as nothing.

Instead, the advertising boom has come from the very people who created this mess, the banks, mortgage lenders and debt dealers. The media must face up to the charge that it ducked real examination of the rot in the system because it was, in effect, bribed by advert income.

Further, to what degree was the media’s duty to explain the world corrupted by the people who owned the papers and TV stations? Would we have had a better assessment of how things were if media magnates weren’t up to their oxters in the same debt as the City?

However, I doubt we need to be that clever. 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. When Margaret Thatcher and New Labour offered so much sexy superficiality, why bother reporting the real world. 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. There was considerably more evidence that a debt bubble would burst than there is
for most media panics, but no paper dared get agitated.

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. Yet, still, his message is being diluted. His view that the bail-out is only the beginning is a sidebar in The Guardian, the other day – dwarfed by the political praise for Brown.

The modern media is too stuck to the ‘agenda’, the invisible hand which governs the media market, apparently deciding