WHI:N I AM introduced to people who are told that I am a freelance journalist, they normally ask what I write about. I reply that, although I have tended to specialise in media, I can bash out a piece on just about anything except business or gardening — and I'll do business at a pinch. Horticultural journalism is read almost exclusively by people who know the subject, and it would take years of study before I could write a piece that would not elicit snorts of disgust at breakfast tables across the land, and sackfuls of angry letters to the editor. But business seems to fascinate millions of readers who do not even have the benefit of second-hand opinion from a broker, and are unlikely to notice the occasional column of pure bluff.
Not that I have stooped so low — one has one's code — but it would be easy enough to knock together a plausible argument in favour of investment in some company or invention, based on scraps of half-remembered economics, without exciting outright derision. It would be merely a matter of opinion. But advise the nation's smallholders to plant their tomatoes on open north-facing slopes, and the harvest, in both senses, would be bitter indeed.
It is precisely the volatile uncertainty of the commercial world that both allows large amounts of nonsense to be written about it, and ensures that the nonsense will be lapped up by a public eager to keep abreast of the latest twists in the great soap opera of the economy. Just like the news pages, financial sections are demand-led; no matter how slow the day, headlines have to be found and stories written to reassure the readers that something really exciting and important is going on. One exception to the principle is Christopher Fildes' City and Suburban column in The Spectator, which is both unimpeachably knowledgeable and specialises in the commonsensical debunking of myth.
But the demand for information in the field, no matter how trivial, seems to he inexhaustible. There was a time when only a truly dramatic rise or fall on the Stuck Exchange would get the City into the evening news. Now the state of the FTSE and the value of the pound are part of every bulletin's furniture. and more and more acres of print are devoted, profitably, to analysis of the markets.
Sonic years ago a friend of mine set up his own media recruitment company, and initially found that most of his work consisted of placing executives in board positions. Nobody had a problem finding writers; one small ad in The Guardian, and there would be queues outside the door, with no need for the expensive assistance of a head-hunter. But recently the emphasis has shifted away from the suits, as they're known, possibly because so many organisations are trying their best to save money on tiers of' management. Now my friend is inundated with requests from clients for financial journalists, mostly to fill posts on new publications.
An unhealthy obsession with Mammon among legions of the gullible is a phenomenon usually associated with the Thatcher years, and certainly all the hype is about property and share ownership had a lot to do with it. Yet even after all the various baths taken by small investors. the market in every kind of financial column, from cheap tabloid share-tipping to broadsheet macroeconomic essays, remains buoyant. Maybe it is a symptom of an enduring godless avarice, the "greed is good" philosophy that reached its unsavoury peak in the 1980s. Or maybe the realisation that the workings of capitalism are crucial to the health of the nation bespeaks a more mature, informed democracy, and is to be applauded. Whatever, I shall continue to limit my consumption of the business press to my weekly perusal of Christopher Fildes. And he will be getting no competition from me.