Press releases erode newspapers’ credibility

Today’s news has been brought to you by the letters C and V.

The launch of Churnalism.com this week – and the Larry the Cat Facebook hoax with which Chris Atkins fooled the Daily Mail and BBC Radio Norfolk – have been met with a bit of a bristly snort from a few hacks, and it's pretty understandable. Hands up, all journalists who are absolutely certain they've never copied and pasted a press release that might, on reflection, have been a bit whiffy . . . anybody . . . no? No. We've all been there. There but for the grace of God, and all that.

But tell someone who's a punter rather than a journo that it's pretty standard practice to Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story, sometimes leaving the original words (and spelling mistakes) completely intact, but slap an intro on the top and then put your byline on it, as if you wrote it all, and you'll get a slightly different reaction. I call it the "Really?" face. People look at you as if to say: "Really? Is that what you do? And you expect me not to punch you in the face, really hard?"

Go on to tell them that the quotes in stories often aren't anything to do with patient phone calls to key contacts whom you've grilled like Paxman, but are, instead, also copied and pasted from a press release, and their withering "Really?" face will only intensify. Go further, and tell them that it's not entirely unheard of to go hopping around websites looking for stories, then slapping huge chunks of them into your story, making it seem as if you've interviewed the person concerned, before once again plopping your byline on top, and they'll start to develop something of a crinkly mouth. Or, even worse, a look of faint pity.

It's not just the tabloids, obviously. And not always the tabloids. And not everyone in the tabloids does this. And it's not necessarily always wrong, even if people are doing it. But that's a bit beside the point when you realise how non-journalists look upon this kind of thing. To those not steeped in the glorious craft it looks a bit, well, easy.

Everything else suddenly seems suspicious. If the fake Larry the Cat story got in, what else seems less than plausible? What about the fox cub that climbed a really tall building – by using the stairs, I hasten to add, rather than climbing up with little foxy crampons or parachuting from a passing stork? Is all that real? I suppose it might be, but I'm a little wary of stories involving foxes, for some reason.

Ah yes. And what of this week's new Twitter star Binkie, whose delightfully posh wedding plans have now disappeared from the Telegraph's website? Is the whole thing a spoof, possibly designed to provoke class war, or is it just Binkie being Binkie, as only Binkie can be?

Sometimes I can't tell any more. And I suppose that's the problem. A bit of Ctrl+C and Cntrl+V here, a bit of non-checking there? It's nothing deadly serious; of course it isn't. No one died because a corny old press release got lobbed into a newspaper. But that's not the problem that punters have with this kind of thing. It erodes the credibility of everything around it, I think.

At least, that's what the press release says, anyway.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.