Stephen McDowell: High quality journalism and a lot of fun

McDowell-Stephen-600x430

My premium recollection of my two years in the chair at Money Marketing was how much fun we had.

There was some very high quality journalism too – as the sagging awards shelf began to rapidly show – but primarily we had fun.

At that time we had a New Labour government settling in after 18 years of Tory rule and so I took the decision to appoint MM’s first-ever political editor. John Lappin was dispatched to political conferences up and down the land and dig out tales from behind the lines. He must have done it quite well since it was he who succeeded me.

The regulator was continuing to put pressure on the IFA community, which no doubt looks fondly upon those days compared with today’s regulatory dragnet.

We tried hard to push buttons on their behalf and so we did – with the old IFA Association and the PIA press office refusing to talk to us. This decision was celebrated in the Star & Garter in Poland Street where many an editorial war council was held.

It was here where we had what I think was the best idea of my tenure. The concept was simple but a good one. I cannot recall which of the crew who first coined the name but nevertheless “Bungle Busters” was born.

We set up a freephone line for IFAs to ring with their complaints about late commission payments, bureaucratic incompetence or whatever the case happened to be, and we named and shamed the provider.

IFAs took this to their hearts and in the few weeks before we discontinued the column – mostly because it ceased to be funny – we created more than a few hot seats in life offices.

There was the continuing stream of building society demutualisations – remember Bradford & Bingley? Alliance & Leicester? Bristol & West? These are now arcane phrases from history a bit like “Coal Mine” or “English Football”.

My colleague Gregor Paul (whom I now believe is a well-known rugby journalist in New Zealand) covered our mortgage beat and reported his sources saying demutualisation and carpet-bagging had gone too far. Many of the lenders, they said, did not have the capital strength to survive – never mind be competitive in a ruthless market. We were not wrong.

Gregor and I created the campaign Save Our Mutuals as a result. Not only did IFAs sign up, but we became the first journalists from the professional press to be summoned before the Treasury select committee to give evidence.

Finally, in late 1999 I pointed out that the Latin numeral for 2000 was MM. Publisher Tim Potter and sales director Patrick Ponsford looked at each other and I had instantly created a rod for my own back, culminating in a 90-page heavily sponsored supplement.

I still have a copy of that supplement. I wrote at that time the much-feared Y2K “Millennium Bug” was a load of old cobblers created by the internet security business and would not arrive. It was a fair bet.

Overall, I loved my time at MM. I hope it has another 30 years of going strong, and that the publication continues to keep advisers informed and to campaign for what is undoubtedly a vital and important industry in the UK.

Stephen McDowell, years as editor: 1998-2000