Is much tougher press treatment of big companies becoming a surprise consequence of the much-publicised Leveson enquiry into tabloid misdemeanours? This week we have seen the Independent and others lay into Bell Pottinger over alleged lobbying influence and ‘dark arts’, the Mail leading the charge over the HSBC subsidiary which may have over-enthusiastically sold care-home plans to elderly customers,and the FT of all people conducting an investigation into ‘payday loans’ charging the vulnerable interest rates of up to 4,000%. Over in the public sector meanwhile, the Telegraph is targeting school exam boards, complete with hidden camera evidence of collusion with teachers.
I did not sell those policies – I was the chief executive’These stories make compelling but awkward reading. At a time when Leveson is being daily told by press victims that the media should be shackled, they are a way of reminding us the importance of a free press, able to use investigative techniques where necessary, on the issues that matter – not just the bedhopping of footballers and soap actors.
Harsh economic times mean there will be more of these stories, as the press responds to public concern that sections of the corporate world are ready to exploit areas where regulation is relatively lax, and are not apparently accountable for their practices. Such stories confirm readers’ suspicion that we are not in this together.
The implications for the chief executive of a large organisation? You may be entirely sure that all the activities of your company are legitimate, and provide a great deal for customers. But the renewed appetite for stories on corporate greed and shoddy consumer treatment suggests that this could be the moment to think about what your response would be, if faced with the prospect of being the focus of a front page report, supported by densely researched background features. These cases have thrown up some pretty embarrassing quotes – such as the care homes boss saying ‘I did not sell those policies – I was the chief executive’. Is the media training of your own executives up to date, or would some of them – through a lack of experience in dealing with the media or any other outside questioning – unintentionally misrepresent their case? This is not the time to be taking the risk on the substance or the presentation.