In Ireland some buy-to-let investors are considering legal action against property journalists who, they claim, painted a misleading picture of some developments and talked up the market.
The Independent has run this piece about the issue: hardly a front-page story but it deserves attention because too many journalists are simply too unquestioning. For every one UK property journalist who takes an appropriately investigating stance, some others blandly accept statements made to them by agents, builders and PRs with vested interests in talking up a house, a development or a market.
I believe there are three reasons why this happens.
First, the property industry creates its own information with little or no ‘objective’ verification. The only people with ‘data’ about specialist sectors like holiday homes or fractional ownership or retirement developments are the very people with a vested interest in promoting them. That ‘data’ cannot be independently verified.
Readers may believe a newspaper story carries implicit authority, but the reality is that some contain ‘facts’ that by force of circumstances come from vested interests.
Second, some journalists could seek out other sources or write more challenging stories but choose not to bother.
In a freelance world where some pay has been cut by 40%, journalists often take any story they can. But (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?) professional journalists try to cover tough subjects – difficult markets, poor investment choices, or the downside of the industry. This creates public confidence that when a journalist actually does praise a development or a market, it is likely to truly deserve that praise.
But some property journalists write only the “10 market towns with nice squares” type of story. They never explain how bad the Spanish market is, or why buyer complaints to the NHBC have risen, or how some investors lose money from property. In other words, these writers do not or cannot write challenging or truly journalistic stories.
Thirdly, as I have written on this blog before, there is a vast PR industry that pumps out only positive information about the property business.
This is not a criticism of PRs – that’s what they are paid to do. For the best it is hard work and they do it supremely well. But when the hype includes a free trip overseas or something a little more, then it’s hard for some of those less-skilled journalists to write objectively about what they see.
And this, of course, is why in the eyes of the general public so many journalists occupy a cosy shared house nestling in the moral foothills with politicians, estate agents and others regarded as inherently untrustworthy.
For all the air-kissing and chit-chat over canapés at receptions, the relationship between the property industry and journalists ought to have an underlying tension. Sometimes, perhaps, that tension should be more obvious than it is.
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