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Pressing problems

If there is one thing that any rookie journalist covering the financial services beat discovers within a matter of days, sometimes hours, of starting work it is that everyone wants to know you.

I was thinking about it the other day, after receiving an invitation from an adviser preparing to launch an IFA firm. He wants as many journalists as possible to attend his press conference: “My plan is to open myself up to criticism and feel this will help my cause.” His aim, clearly, is to turn himself into an IFA version of St Sebastian.

Sadly, it will not be possible for me to attend his martyrdom, although have written back to wish him luck. But the invitation did make me stop and think about the relationship between journalists and the industry more generally.

When I joined Money Marketing in the early 1990s, I was immediately inundated by offers of breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week. All my colleagues found themselves fielding scores of calls from companies’ marketing teams, inviting them for drinks, a cup of coffee or a meal, followed by access to usually elusive senior executives.

Even better for thirsty hacks, back then, it was not uncommon for a PR team to descend on the paper’s offices at the end of the day and offer to take writing staff out for a pint or three. If you really wanted to, you never needed to buy your own drink.

This generosity still exists, if not quite to the same extent as 20 years ago. Even today, I get my fair share of invites , certainly enough to get me out of the office every day of the week.

Why this amazing desire to rub shoulders with journalists? Well, apart from our enormous charisma, a large part of it is obviously so the industry can try to put the “right” slant on a story.

Additionally, the hope is to set the news agenda, so we write about issues from the point of view of businesses operating in that particular sector. A classic example here is the Association of British Insurers’ “savings gap” message. It identifies a “problem” that, by amazing coincidence, the insurance industry is then supremely capable of rectifying.

But what I have found is that an equally big aspect of the industry’s meet-the-press strategy is more to do with understanding. “It” wants to understand “us” and what makes us tick. In one case, I was allowed to read one PR team’s assessment briefing about me to a senior executive I was interviewing – the brief declared that I was “not hostile” to the company in question.

More important, it wants us to understand its own perspective on the world as a whole, the daily dilemmas it faces and the choices it makes as a result. The hope is if it can get us to understand that things are far more complex than we first thought, we will be less likely to rush into judgement when they go wrong.

My worry is that sometimes it is a case of the blind leading each other up the wrong garden path. For example, my generous would-be host at the press conference I referred to earlier, told me: “I have always perceived journalists as different animals to most.

“Most took out pensions with Equitable Life, didn’t they, when it was plainly obvious there was danger lurking within,” the implication being that favourable press coverage of Equitable in the 1990s was largely down to the fact that we had our pensions invested in the company.

The truth is different – many journalists had final-salary pensions back then and those members of DC schemes did not park their money with Equitable at all. In so far as we ever wrote nice things about Equitable, it was occasionally naive over-correction to the way we felt about the rest of the industry.

Cast your mind back to personal pension fee structures in the 1990s, to Skandia Life’s “contribution servicing charges”, or Scottish Equitable’s “specific member charge” which actually rose if contributions were halted or reduced during a policy’s lifetime.

Or Albany Life’s massaging of projected charging by promising a huge loyalty bonus after 25 years of a unit-linked pension, in the knowledge that lapse rates meant no one’s pension lasted that long. That will give you a clue why so many people on my side of the fence felt sympathetic towards Equitable.

Was it an over-reaction? Possibly. Was it a sign that we did not really understand what was lurking underneath the surface of Equitable? Definitely. But since when has that been the sole preserve of journalists?

Look at the failures of the Treasury and FSA in this regard, people who had infinitely more information than journalists on the subject. Cast your mind back to all the misselling scandals of the past 25 years. Very few of them were down to genuine greed on the part of advisers.

Most were simply down to ignorance, just like journos, in fact. The difference is that advisers of all stripes – from bancassurers to tied agents to life company salespeople to IFAs – have actually cost savers far more than journalists ever did.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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