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Panpa Bulletin : May 2007
PANPA Bulletin May 2007 33 media matters When an Australian federal minister had to resign because of undis- closed shareholdings earlier this year, it got me wondering how many report- ers and editors held shares in the compa- nies they were reporting upon. So I posed the question to the Commonwealth Press Union's electronic discussion list for newspaper editors (SNIE), of which I am moderator. It was a simple query, short enough to reproduce in full: "If politicians must declare their share- holdings on an official share register, should editors and reporters be required to do the same? Who already does this? Who requires details on their journalists' shareholdings and memberships?" It attracted quite a response from jour- nalists throughout the Commonwealth. Editor-in-chief of the independent Mauritian newspaper Le Mauricien, Gilbert Ahnee, said he did not enforce a disclosure policy but said there were good reasons for adopting one, at least for the editor and business reporters. "We expect our reporters to disclose a conflict of interest if ever one arises," he wrote. Editor of WA Business News Mark Pownall said he required his reporters to reveal their shareholdings in any company before they write about it. "If they have a beneficial interest, I weigh up whether or not they should be writing that story or not," he wrote. "If they do write it, we disclose the inter- est at the bottom of the story (or within it sometimes as part of comment pieces) ... as we do if the reporter has undertaken travel or any other significant benefit from any party mentioned in a story. "Having said all that, it's pretty easy to forget that you have Telstra shares when you are mentioning them or any other similarly large public company (usually the privatisa- tions which everyone tends to participate in as a kind of citizen's right). In such cases, I wonder whether that matters anyway." He counselled finance reporters to keep away from the markets. "If you really need to invest, find an arms length broker (not your scaly mate) who deals in stock well away from your particu- lar area of interest ... or become a stockbro- ker," he suggested. He also pointed to the problem with property writers not disclosing their hold- ings when talking up the market on behalf of their advertisers. Opinions Editor at the Hamilton Spectator in Canada, Kevin Cavanagh, said the more difficult question was that of enforcement. He quoted his newspaper's ethical guidelines which stated: "Staff should avoid financial investments or other outside busi- ness interests that could create the impres- sion of a conflict of interest." "We frown on such things, but I have to say I don't know how we actually patrol such newsroom virtues," he wrote. "I'm curious to see how newspapers liter- ally enforce this kind of integrity safeguard." Sadly, none of the subscribers to the list had any advice regarding this matter. Most journalism ethical codes throughout the world -- both indus- try-based and in-house -- have similar clauses, but you rarely hear of anyone being disciplined for breaches. This might be because journalists never allow such conflicts to interfere with their reporting or, more likely, because it's all just too hard for those who should be policing the matter. Moving beyond ethical guidelines, most countries have strict securities and trade practices laws, with tough penalties which can be invoked for clear instances of peddling stocks to impact on the markets, however, the burden of proof makes pros- ecution difficult. Canadian newsman Murray Burt said the simple rule when he was city edi- tor on The Globe and Mail in Toronto was "Join nothing and be beholden to no-one." "In the finance department of the paper, which ran a very tight ship, the editor was Calvinistic in his proscription of staff own- ing stock," he wrote. "The process worked because everyone bought into the principle with almost evangelistic zeal. "It paid off, because civil servants knew, and tended to be more helpful with our guys than others." Business editor of the Trinidad Guardian, Anthony Wilson, predicted a share register for journalists would just col- lect dust in someone's office. "More important would be for the inter- est to be declared at the end of the piece and for other commentators to be encour- aged to do the same," he suggested. He gave a recent example of a situation where he even declared he did not have an interest in a financial institution upon which he was reporting. Last word in the debate went to Australian journalist and trainer Pieter Wessels, who took a different view. He said journalists needed to own shares if they were to understand financial markets. "Editors don't want a reporter writing about shares who does not have the knowl- edge that owning them brings," he wrote. "Editors can't ignore the fact that the proportion of households with shares - at least in the developed world - is now ex- traordinarily high. "Are our reporters to be financially celi- bate in a world driven by the sexiest subject of them all - money? "Disclosure sure. When was it not right? Just because there is a chance the power of the press is being abused doesn't mean editors should hobble themselves in reporting financial news." Of course, then there is the vexed issue of journalists reporting in an unbiased manner upon their own newspaper company's financial affairs. How many would pass that test? Professor Mark Pearson Email: mpearson@sta .bond.edu.au Financial Interests In terms of transparency and impartiality, should editors and journalists be required to declare their shareholdings? writes Mark Pearson.