Big companies in the firing line as newspapers rediscover their investigative zeal

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.

One comment on “Big companies in the firing line as newspapers rediscover their investigative zeal

  1. Kate on

    Thanks for the link to this post Tom. I think you’re right in saying the Indy and FT et al are trying to prove a point this week, it certainly seems to me that the flurry of stories are not coincidental to Leveson.
    The Indy certainly needs to claw back readers according to today’s ABCs. I wonder if The Investigative Bureau of Journalism chose the Indy to splash the Bell Pott story because Simon Kelner now has a big link with City University and TIBJ through his new Journalism Foundation.
    I do think newspapers need to invest more in finding these stories for themselves though, and not just pally up with private bureaus to do their jobs for them. Do you think it’s viable for papers to spend money on investigative work at the moment though?

    Your point about the implications for executives is spot on. I spoke with a board member of a popular charity only yesterday about how they do not have a limit on their expenses and regularly order gourmet food at the charity’s expense. I wondered if she was hibernating during the expenses scandal. You’d think company chiefs would be wising up.

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