Speech to the Journalists’ Charity annual lunch

Let me start by thanking the Journalists’ Charity for inviting me to speak at your lunch today.

For someone who started out over 20 years ago – at the tender age of 23 – as a junior journalist at the Financial Times, it’s a great honour to be invited to speak at this prestigious lunch with some many people who I respect – and in many cases I can now call my friends.

It gives me the chance to pay tribute to the work of this excellent charity which does such valuable and often vital work for journalists and their families who fall on hard times.

But I can’t speak at this event without paying tribute to my first Editor at the FT who hired me in 1989 – the fabulous Geoffrey Owen – a newspaper Editor who played tennis as an amateur at Wimbledon – and who was the FT Correspondent in New York in days when other than for the most important stories they filed by airmail… how things have changed.

Geoff Owen was a fine Editor, despite the fact – or perhaps because of the fact that – he could always see both sides of every issue.

My favourite recollection is of a leader I wrote back in 1991 strongly supporting the radical conclusions of an MMC inquiry into the beer industry which proposed big restructuring. I filed as usual and went round to see the Editor, well past deadline, at 6.30pm. He was worried – but it was too late to re-write it… after some reflection, he paused and then said: “it’s good – but could we just add to the final paragraph ‘or maybe not’?”

It is right that I pay a special tribute to the FT – today, more than ever under the Editorship of Lionel Barber, one of our country’s great global newspapers.

It was – as a young graduate student at Harvard – that the FT made my academic study of economics come alive.

As political revolutions in Lithuanian, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany led to massive economic dislocation and reform in real times it was the columns of the FT – Martin Wolf, Jeff Sachs, John Lloyd – that charted revolution and debated the future of policy.

For me as a young graduate – studying British unemployment with Larry Summers and Larry Katz, I had the choice – PhD in America or leader writer at the FT. I chose journalism.

But it was also the FT that propelled me into politics. The FT was a fabulous place. Look at the luminaries: Nigel Lawson, Shirley Williams, Bill Keegan. And it encouraged me to branch out into the political debate – I wrote a Fabian pamphlet in 1992 advocating Labour call for Bank of England independence. When I showed him the draft, Martin Wolf said ‘that’s the end of your political career’ – and with permission of Richard Lambert and Ian Hargreaves, I was in regular touch with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But having spent four years travelling to and writing about economics round the world – China, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, etc – I applied for the job of Africa correspondent on the basis that I would write the economic story of the continent. The FT said Washington, Moscow or Tokyo fine but not Nairobi. I resigned to go and work for Gordon Brown instead – and for me the rest is history.

The world of media and newspapers has changed hugely since I started out at the FT.

Back then newspapers invariably broke the big stories – not blogs, generally not the broadcast media, and certainly not 24 hour news. Back then broadcast TV political coverage was John Sergeant on the Six, Robin Oakley on the Nine and Michael Brunson on News at Ten – summing up the day with careful prose and sometimes the odd raised eyebrow.

There was no BBC News 24 or Radio 5 Live – and while I regularly walked next to Gordon Brown in the setup shots for Sky interviews so my parents living in Italy could see I was still alive, Sky News didn’t have anything like the scale or reach or power of today.

How things have changed…

These days broadcasting is these days at least as much comment than reporting… perhaps too much?

Stories are regularly broken throughout the day from a hugely wide range of media outlets, large and small.

Of course, the ‘off the record’ comment to a columnist, unattributed but then repeated and reported as fact, remains the bane of our lives as politicians.

But for those at the frontline – in my view, with the proliferation of outlets and real-time blogging – the old days of ‘off the record and exclusive’ briefings are numbered.

Since becoming a Cabinet Minister, I have endeavoured to do everything on the record and to all: during the leadership election David Miliband said everything from him would be reported through his spokesperson. I went one better and said it would all come on the record from me.

And for politicians, life is ‘on the record’ all the time.

Last week I was speaking at LSE and they asked me if I wanted Chatham House rules? Looking at the audience clutching their iPhones and blackberries, I just laughed.

Today we are watched all time – and reported in real time on Twitter: ‘Ed Balls is on the night bus’ or – ‘I am sitting in the same carriage as Ed Balls – the b*stard!’ – how do you avoid looking up to check whether the only other person on the carriage is actually tweeting away on their blackberry ?

Quite how that will hamper the next ‘Facebook generation’ of politicians remains to be seen… for now, I am relieved that my youthful indiscretions have only been captured in the odd grainy photo… I am very sure David Cameron and George Osborne feel the same way…

But one thing has not changed since my days at the FT – and indeed since the FT came into existence.

As I argued in my Bloomberg speech last August, the history of British policymaking in the last hundred years has taught us that on all occasions when major economic judgements had to be made by the Government of the day there is a broad-based tendency in the political, media and financial world to row in behind the decision at the time, and ignore the dissenting voices of economists.

In 1925, Chancellor Winston Churchill disastrously decided to return sterling to the ‘gold standard’ on the grounds that there was no credible alternative which the financial markets would support and that a return to gold would boost confidence and private investment.

He was supported by the broad mass of economic opinion – including the Governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman and the leadership of the Labour Party as well as the Times and the Economist

Again in 1949 and 1967, the decisions of the then Labour governments to resist and delay inevitable devaluation was widely supported by both the press and the Conservative opposition.

And then of course: 1990, Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s fatefully decision to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the face of heavy financial market pressure, a decision supported by the CBI, the TUC, the Governor of the Bank of England, the leadership of the Labour Party – and widely acclaimed right across the press.

One lesson I draw from history is to be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it – let alone credit rating agencies seeking to get their names in the papers.

Adopting the consensus view may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.

But the second lesson is this: always listen to the economists.

I started at the FT in September 1990.

One month after the first Gulf War had started.

The month in which inflation peaked at 10.9 % and Ford agreed a 14% three year deal.

And one month before Britain joined the ERM.

The FT as a newspaper backed the decision 100%.

But none of us leader writers – Martin Wolf, John Plender and newly arrived me – supported the decision. Only the hugely distinguished Sir Samuel Brittan was on the other side of the argument.

So we spent 2 years composing contorted leaders… this is a brave decision… it will be very painful… we are in for rocky times… but the govt must stay the course… the markets need clarity… they must stick to the plan… etc.

It was only once the policy collapsed that we could say what we really thought.

So when in recent months I have been outside the broad consensus in the media world in my opposition to George Osborne’s economic plan, I have been reassured to see support for what I’ve been saying from esteemed economic columnists, often writing in defiance of their own paper’s leader line – Martin Wolf, Sam Brittan, Anatole Kaletsky – as well as Bill Keegan and Larry Elliott.

But when I look back to the period when I was writing leaders, there is dimension that has changed radically over the last century.

Think back to the 1949 devaluation. On 29 July 1949, the cabinet met to decide that devaluation was necessary but did not act straight away because the Chancellor, Stafford Cripps, was convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium.

The then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, wrote a letter to Cripps and asked Harold Wilson, who was going on holiday nearby, to deliver it.

Cripps told Wilson that no decision should be made until he returned to London. On his return, he spent a few days arguing unsuccessfully for delay. The Cabinet confirmed its original decision on 29th August. And the devaluation was not actually enacted until 18th September.

What took years months in 1925 and 1949 to build to a crisis.

Took days in 1967…

And hours in 1992…

No wonder George Osborne is nervous….

Imagine our Chancellor even raising the issue of ‘Plan B’ in today’s Cabinet – and think how it would leak and echo round the world in minutes.

But while the pace of change has accelerated beyond recognition, the rules of game have not changed.
In the economy, what matters is outcomes. And, as Ken Clarke has regularly observed, no amount of wishful thinking or apparent political certainty can trump these economic forces.

Which leads me to think about the parallels between the challenge of the economy and the challenge facing the media in the current debate about privacy.

It seems to be that – here again – while the pace of change has vastly increased, the fundamental challenge is still the same.

Balancing the legitimate privacy of individual citizens against the public interest and the rights of a free press pre-date 24 hour news, the internet, mobile phone voice message hacking and the ECHR.

I would rather live in a society where the press regulates itself – although, as my colleagues in the House of Commons will tell you, self-regulation is not an excuse for complacency.

I am clear that as a politician I should have no expectation of privacy in the event of legal wrong-doing or double standards or if I am engaging in immoral behaviour.

But I fully expect my children’s privacy to be respected – as it has been.

I am affronted by the powerful – those who trade on their image – using the law to protect their privacy, by which I mean the exposing of their hypocrisy.

But I do not think this means that there is a public interest in the public knowing all the details of the lives of every person whose name they have heard of – and even less so of their relatives, who they have never heard of.

The fact is that these have always been – and will always be – very difficult judgements, necessarily made case by case – and there must always be recourse to the Courts, if self-regulation fails – but we should be as vigilant against a lurch to privacy against the public interest as we should be determined to prevent a free-for-all.

So the fundamental challenge endures – as the Duchess of Cornwall set out powerfully last week in her defence of press freedom.

But as in economy, so in media, the huge increase in pace and scale of media dissemination makes managing this system and policing these judgements much more complicated.

On the one hand, this diversity and technological innovation leads to the understandable frustration of many people in this room that there appears to be currently one rule for national newspapers and broadcasters and another for twitter and the internet.

And this is one challenge that will certainly need to be addressed: including if the government does establish an inquiry – parliamentary or expert – to investigate the current state of our privacy laws.

But there is – it seems to me – another quite different danger.

In economic management, reputation matters – but in my experience, outcomes matter more than words – whatever the spin or hubris, the truth outs as unemployment rises or living standards fall.

But on personal reputation in the modern world, the danger is that the ‘truth’ is what gets written down – whether it is based on fact or not.

And mainstream newspapers and broadcasters have a power to set and define that truth in the public mind which still far outstrips twitter or the internet and which no amount of after-the-fact correction can ever reverse – from Michael Foot’s wearing what was wrongly called a donkey jacket, through to Gordon Brown being falsely accused of throwing a secretary out of her chair or the urban myth that children in primary schools can’t play conkers without goggles.

We have nothing to fear from the truth. Let me give you one example from my own experience.

Remember Alfie – the baby-faced 13 year old Dad – who fathered a child with a 15 year old girl? The Sun splash, with accompanying article from the Leader of the Opposition, expressed moral outrage at our broken society. It ran that evening on the BBC and ITV national news.

But it turned out Alfie wasn’t the Dad. The DNA evidence showed it so – weeks after his own father had sold his story, despite the best efforts of the local children’s services to protect the child.

But who in the wider public knows that now? The truth had been set – regardless of the facts – the damage has been done and will live with that boy all his life.

So that is a particular modern media challenge, as you reflect on the future of media regulation: unlike in the economy, the global power of reporting these days can sometimes be bigger than the truth – and can swamp the fundamentals.

As for the economy, beware the consensus… And listen to your economic commentators!

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati
  • email
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter
Posted May 17th, 2011 by Ed

Leave a Reply