One thing that can make journalism valuable is its authority - the idea that the writer has knowledge or insight that cannot easiy be gained elsewhere. It is part of the personal and professional myth of many journalists that they have this authority, that they are highly knowledgeable, well connected or both. The reality is often different as Sathnam Sanghera of the Times candidly admits.
"business journalists rarely get the full truth about companies. The fact is that, despite all the awards we enjoy giving ourselves, with the exception of one or two individuals, we failed to predict almost all the crises enveloping us: the Ponzi schemes, the frauds, the credit crunch, everything in fact, including Cobra. Not that it’s our fault: journalists are only as good as their sources and if there’s one thing we’ve learnt this year it is that the people running businesses are as clueless as everyone else.
The second painful truth revealed by the Cobra debacle is that the business world is hugely susceptible to the influence of public relations. This is, in part, because business is overrun by PR people — and Cobra was more image-obsessed than most, announcing plans to sponsor this year’s Bafta awards as part of a £8.4 million PR and marketing drive only months before it went into administration — and, in part, because business is a bit boring and a good story, such as Cobra’s, gets seized upon.
I’m not guiltless in this respect. I was one of the hundreds of journalists who wrote positively about Bilimoria in recent years, penning a piece a decade ago that mindlessly cited growing sales without mentioning the lack of profits. Frankly, I should have realised when the company subsequently sent me some Cobra wine to try — a beverage that tasted like fermented mouthwash — that its attempts to diversify were going to get it into trouble."