Business & journalism

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In 1964 the Sunday Times launched the first business section on Fleet Street. Over five decades, public interest in entrepreneurs, innovators and SME leaders has continued to grow but the core relationship between bosses and journalists remains unchanged.

On 28 April, US drugs giant Pfizer stunned the City and Whitehall with an offer to buy AstraZeneca, one of Britain’s few global players in the business of discovering and making new medicines. The £60bn bid – ultimately unsuccessful – would have been the biggest-ever foreign takeover of a UK company.

Readers of the Sunday Times, however, were not surprised. Eight days before Pfizer broke cover, the newspaper’s business section had revealed the Americans’ plans in a front-page story, detailing the first approach and forecasting the likely offer price. It was a scoop that kept up the section’s 50-year tradition of leading the business pack.

Our business section was the first on Fleet Street, launched in 1964, before corporation tax, capital gains tax, and even 20 years in advance of the FTSE100 index. The landmark provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between journalism and business, and how it has changed. One key difference is shown by the nervousness with which executives at the Sunday Times regarded their new creation. Internal critics thought business a dry, boring subject. There would be no advertising interest, and no stories on a Sunday worth printing.

Dominic_OConnellThey were wrong. Business was no longer boring, and was about to become extremely interesting. The economic news would no longer be about big, often state-owned corporations, the impenetrable world of the City, or the latest speech by the chancellor. Instead, the 1960s saw the emergence of new themes and exciting characters: professional managers (Britain’s first business schools opened), eager entrepreneurs (Richard Branson made his start four years after our launch) and buccaneering corporate raiders. Readers became interested in business, money, and the personalities that drove the country.

As well as big public companies, readers wanted to know more about the entrepreneurs and small-business people who emerged as powerful economic forces. We tapped into this interest in wealth creation with our small-business coverage, and also our relationship with Fast Track, the Oxford-based organisation that produces research on Britain’s fastest-growing private companies.

One obvious difference is the professionalism of the relationship between companies and the press. Financial journalists working in the Sixties, Seventies and even Eighties could often deal unfettered with chairmen and chief executives. PR people were on the scene, but not in such great numbers as today.

Journalists have had to become more professional too. The idea of a reporter dealing in shares ahead of publication seems anathema today, but was not particularly frowned upon in the past. It is now (we hope) banished, and at the Sunday Times there is a central record of who holds what shares and tight restrictions on when stock can be bought and sold.

Tighter rules have also brought higher standards. When it comes to reporting big deals, there is the hard discipline of the stock market announcement. If we say that X is planning to buy Y, the Takeover Panel will force a stock exchange announcement the next morning – if the story is true. If there’s no declaration, we’ve got it wrong.

Journalists in the past had a precious asset not available to their modern counterparts – time. Desks were better-staffed, and papers had fewer pages. Securing a slot for a story was difficult. Reporters had more time to follow up leads, and even if they landed their prize it was not guaranteed to make it into the public domain. But journalists today have tools at their disposal of which their predecessors could only dream; the treasure trove of the internet, instant access to Companies House, and a wealth of disclosure on pay, contracts, company accounts and litigation. The ubiquity of social media means that it is now nearly impossible for any company to conceal embarrassing lapses of customer service or wrongdoing.

The one continuum between now and then are the characters at the heart of the relationship, the journalist and the people he or she writes about. That personal connection has not changed, and then, as now, the journalists that did best, and the companies that enjoyed good relations with the media, were the ones who were able to forge proper relationships with their opposite numbers.

 

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Dominic O'Connell

Dominic O'Connell

Dominic O'Connell is business editor of the Sunday Times

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