Sunday, March 6, 2011

Morals of newspaper columnists

Dear Phylicia Oppelt, Editor of The Times,
          You don’t seem to notice what’s happening in your own paper. So as the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman I thought I had better ask you what your policy is as far as your columnists are concerned.
          Can they use the pulling power of your publication to promote their own business ventures or those of their relatives?
          David Shapiro is a stockbroker and fund manager for Sasfin Twenty-Ten Fund and in one of his columns he blatantly told your readers about the shares he was adding to the portfolio I manage. He punted Rio Tinto, Brazil’s Vale; luxury goods firm LVMH; Nestle and so on. In addition he wrote of the merits of Kindle; iPad; the New York Times and three other overseas publications.
          There were more plugs in that half page of his than there are at Bathroom Bizarre.
          A week later, as promised, he dealt with themes upon which I am structuring my client’s portfolios. Another half page advertisement for his business followed.
          I have purposely steered towards companies that I am familiar with and in some cases I have repeated my choices, reinforcing their attraction, he said. He then tipped the same shares he had mentioned in the earlier column plus quite a few more.
          It was a sickening promotion of Shapiro Incorporated. And if a lot of your readers then rushed out and bought the shares he mentioned their value would have increased making yours truly out to be an impressive financial guru.
          Correct me if I’m wrong Phylicia, but I always thought a newspaper writer who tipped shares was not supposed to be in a position to benefit in any way from the performance of the ones he mentions.
          Early this year Shapiro waffled on about how he had recently visited his daughter in New York; was due to go to Sydney for his son’s wedding; his chest infection; watching TV; a shabbos dinner etc, etc. This monumental ego trip round the world was about as far from his mandate, which is billed as Making cents of High Finance, as the Man in the Moon.
          Your paper published a very short letter once from another reader who complained that Shapiro wrote too much about his domestic life and too little about Making cents of High Finance.
          Please Phylicia, if he can’t stick to the subject and give us impartial advice you should tell him to go and Twitter somewhere else.
          Then you had Peter Delmar getting on the advertising bandwagon in his column under the impressive headline Our minor is major talent. His mandate is It’s a small world, so he can’t be faulted on that score. Of course Peter is not in the same self promotion league as your David, but the principle remains the same.
          He devoted his entire column, which occupies the same position and space as Shapiro’s, to praising the major new musical talent of his 15 year old goddaughter. She goes to a posh private school so her parents are wealthy and they stumped up R25 000 to produce the girl’s first 500 CDs. The family was in the process of selling the albums at R100 a shot.
          For a brief moment Peter’s conscience awoke because he wrote that the girl merits a mention (nepotism aside). Some mention; this advertisement would have cost anybody else more than 60 grand. And no doubt sales of the CD have been given a huge boost.
          As an added bonus both Shapiro and Delmar got paid to write these puffs in this expensive space that they helped themselves to for free.
       Now that I have brought this ethical question to the fore perhaps you could let me know Phylicia, what you are going to do about it.
          Yours truly,
PS. Mondli Makhanya, your overall Group Editor, had this to say about columns, You hand over a piece of real estate to the columnist. The onus is then on the columnist to treat the space with responsibility and not abuse that freedom from interference. Do you think these two did that Phylicia?

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