The Beeb's business coverage is improving, but has some way to go
Speed, Greed and the M2
Famously, when Greg Dyke arrived at the BBC as director general in 2000 he was shocked to discover how poor its business coverage was. Not only was it scant, it was hostile. If a phone company announced record profits, for example, the news was reported as if it was doing something wrong. Speed, Greed and the M25 (20 October, 10.30am) was a fascinating if unintentionally funny throwback to the days when greed was bad. James May, the long-haired, middle-aged one from Top Gear, went in pursuit of the City traders who, after the opening of the London Orbital 25 years ago, had allegedly turned the motorway into a race track.
May dolefully recalled his own life in London at the time: a music graduate living above a shop in the sticks and obliged to drive a Mini Clubman. Beyond the grind, he was aware of another London in which traders traded junk bonds and received million-pound bonuses. And what did they spend their immoral gains on? Cars, of course: first a 16-valve Golf GTI and then Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. And where did they race them? The M25, newly opened by Margaret Thatcher.
It all made perfect sense: psyched-up young masters of the universe, as reckless on the roads as on the trading floor, would get "drunk on the tipple of the moment, petrol". In those days, there were fewer police patrol cars on the M25, less traffic and not a speed camera anywhere. Obviously, there would be midnight races round its 117-mile circumference. Obviously, anyone who lapped in more than 60 minutes was a sissy.
Unfortunately, May and his producer, Julia Adamson, could find no one who had actually taken part in the "race". They found a copper who claimed to have raided an organiser's home, and a cutting from the Times reciting police concerns (that its author was Boris Johnson did not inspire confidence - the future mayoral candidate was fired from the Times for making up a quotation). They interviewed two former City boys who were certain the races had happened, but neither had taken part. The programme conformed to the journalistic model hammered out by John Humphrys and a business reporter on Today last Monday. "First simplify, then exaggerate," said Humphrys. "Then knock it down," said the man from the City desk.
Fortunately, elsewhere the BBC takes its coverage of the mores of money more seriously these days. The improvement is almost entirely due to Dyke's hiring of Jeff Randall, an Essex boy in voice and philosophy, as the corporation's first business editor. I well remember the shock of his early commentaries. One went along the lines of the UK having to choose between a vigorous, US-style economy where unless you worked you starved or (and I was expecting him to say something like the European welfare state, where social stability came at the price of slower growth) "decline". Randall left two years ago. Fortunately, he can still be found on 5 Live on Sunday nights (9pm).
The Weekend Business is an hour-long show notable for its presenter's ability to attract the main players to its studio every week (including Rupert Murdoch). Unusually, on Sunday (21 October), he devoted the programme to a single topic, horse racing. Although a listener emailed in to complain about the price of a sandwich at the races, the emphasis was not, as in You and Yours, on the consumer, but on the bottom line. Was the industry financially healthy or not?
Evan Davis, who is the BBC's star business reporter (although his title is economics editor), currently does a rival programme on Radio 4 on Saturdays (5.30pm), called The Bottom Line. Hindered a little by a shorter running time than Randall's show, it is still always interesting. This past week, its discussion of workplace appraisals was particularly illuminating. P Y Gerbeau of X-Leisure was scathing, saying that if an appraisal was a surprise to an employee, the manager had failed. "Formal appraisals should not exist."
My appraisal of BBC Radio's business coverage is that it is improving but has some way to go. Coverage is notably skimpy on Today after 7am, for example. But the corporation has got over its business phobia - which, given that it is a struggling business itself, is just as well.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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