Book review: Playing footsie with the FTSE? The great crash of 2008 and the crisis in journalism edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble

Opening the New Academic Building at the London School of Economics a couple of months after the near collapse of the British banking system in September 2008, the Queen bluntly asked ‘Why did nobody see it coming?’ Liz’s question was directed at the economists who had just given her a presentation on the financial crisis but it could just as easily be asked of mainstream journalism.


Why our supposedly questioning and critical media turned out to be more of a lapdog than a watchdog during what John Mair calls “the Great Crash of 2008” is the central theme of Playing Footsie with the FTSE?, a special edition of the International Journal of Communication Ethics. Several reasons repeatedly crop-up in the eighteen contributions by finance journalists, practitioners and academics, from commentators’ poor level of technical knowledge to the reduction in investigative reporting due to cut backs in the media. This lack of understanding, time and resources, it is argued, left journalists vulnerable to manipulation by the well-funded PR departments of finance firms.


Luckily, a couple of contributors are willing to highlight more systemic and uncomfortable reasons than these largely self-serving criticisms (after all, it isn’t the contributor who lacks technical knowhow, but all the other journalists). Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, notes that business journalists “are mostly fans of capitalism”, just like sportswriters are generally sports fans. He goes on to quote a senior New Yorker editor, who argues “business journalism was in bed with, or embedded, in the financial institutions the way that war correspondents were embedded in the units of Iraq.”


John Tulloch provides an excellent concluding essay, lucidly explaining how “the progress of capitalism depends on amnesia”. That is, forgetting that its critical flaw is instability. “One doesn’t have to go bodysnatching in Highgate cemetery to recall that crisis is endemic in a market capitalist system”, he quips. And while most of the media metaphorically strung up RBS’s Fred Goodwin, Tulloch argues this “find the guilty men” approach is a red-herring. For the Head of Journalism at University of Lincoln this populist trope plays a dual role – allowing non-specialists to grapple with something understandable in a story riddled with complex concepts like derivatives and quantitative easing and also letting the wider system off the hook.


With the City dishing out huge bonuses again having dodged any effective regulation or tax on their activities, it is only a matter of time before the next financial crisis hits (Tulloch points out the UK has already suffered eight recessions since 1945).


The question is whether the media will role over once again in a state of wilful amnesia or hunt out the important information to empower people to make informed decisions and participate fully in society. With no noticeable change in media working practices and the majority of journalists unwilling to confront the hierarchical, corporate-friendly media that pays their salary – large corporations themselves lets not forget – the future looks bleak.


Playing footsie with the FTSE? The great crash of 2008 and the crisis in journalism is published by Abramis, priced £9.99.


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].

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