In Britain like other countries, share ownership became much more widespread over the course of the 20th century. The print media responded to this by publishing more content dedicated to investments. In the U.K., even lowbrow tabloids offered extensive financial advice and their role as advisers to their millions of readers continued into the 21st century. Of course, the quality of this advice was not always good and the recommendations of newspaper editors were not always made in good faith.

Development of Financial Journalism

            Written investment guides have existed since the 18th century. Resorting to a specialist book was the only way for someone not connected to the market to better understand it as the newspapers of the day generally did not dedicate much coverage to the prices of securities. True, in the 19th century, British newspapers published lists of share prices. However, this was often the extent of coverage; there was little commentary to accompany this. Regular financial news was not exactly interesting information for someone not already invested and few in the country were.

           Later in the century, more useful information was shared in U.K. newspapers, a function of improving communications and the increasing number of limited liability companies and their shareholders. Still, this information was largely aimed at practitioners or those associated with them. But, by the start of the 20th century, there was a large enough market of small investors, who were not professionals, that newspapers began to orient their financial coverage around them. Three mass market newspapers founded around the turn of the century, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Daily Mirror, featured financial news from the start.

Share Tips and Tabloids

            The rapidly emerging mass market tabloids began to offer financial advice but this was relatively constrained until after the Second World War. Share-ownership was just not common enough among the buyers of these papers to justify large amounts of content. So, the sections of these papers dedicated to financial news, while present, were not extensive. The Daily Mirror cut its financial section altogether with the start of the war in 1939.

            After the war though, rising incomes allowed for the emergence of new financial firms and products aimed at the common man. This set off a surge in financial advertising and the return of financial news to the papers. The finance editor of the Daily Express, which had become the largest circulating paper just before the war, was Frederick Ellis; he would only pen two or three pieces a week in the late 1940s, and these largely on broader economic topics. In the 1950s, this began to change and by the late-1950s and the 1960s, Ellis was well known as share tipper publishing his share picks on a now-daily finance page for the Express. The Daily Mirror, which replaced the Daily Express as the most popular newspaper in the country, reintroduced its financial coverage in 1960. The 1960s saw the emergence of a genuine mass market in financial news.

Source: 1949 piece by Frederick Ellis, Charlie Chaplin Archive

            Again, the newspapers and their writers and editors took the role of financial advisers. They not only plugged shares but created columns responding to reader questions. Like Ellis at the Daily Express, Patrick Sergeant at the Daily Mail became well-known as a financial adviser to his readers. Another such figure was Jim Slater, who starting from 1963 published anonymously for the Sunday Telegraph, whose financial editor was then Nigel Lawson, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer. The public wanted to be recommended shares by newspapermen because they were well-regarded and perhaps even possessed special information as a result of their proximity to executives and market operators.

            The ‘money pages’ of the tabloids and more well respected papers alike focused on more than just investments but the manner in which shares were promoted had never been so direct before. Shares promoted in the mass market newspapers were explained in simple terms, relating to the daily lives of readers. In promoting stock in tea-company Brooke Bond, then trading at 15 shillings a share, the Mirror’s Derek Dale said “There is always a profit to be made from the thing that is fundamental. And there is nothing more basic to the national character than—a ‘cuppa’.” This sort of recommendation was common.

1970s

            The growing affluence would not last. In the 1970s, the British economy was again in the doldrums. Inflation was rising, as was unemployment, and share prices fell in the middle of the decade, so the nature of the financial coverage in the tabloids changed. The stock picks of share tippers were replaced by investigations into the mounting cost of living. Other personal finance topics and economic news got more attention than movements in share prices.

            Coverage of the economy more generally replaced the promotion of investments. It was now Monetarist and Keynesian theories that were being simplified to readers rather than the investment merits of shares in firms. If a reader wrote to Mirror editor Robert Head, Derek Dale’s replacement, in 1980, asking about the stock market, the editor was inclined to steer him or her away.

1980s

            In the 1980s, shareholding became more widespread and the situation changed again. The privatization of state-owned firms and the de-mutualization of financial companies created many new share investors, many of them from the working classes. The new investors overlapped with the readership of tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mirror and the Sun. While the right-wing press were bigger advocates for privatizations; left- and right-wing papers alike recommended participating in the share offerings. The financial sections of the tabloids were refashioned or, in the case of some papers, launched for the first time.

           The Sun made the financial coverage it did offer much more extensive and regular. The Daily Mail added an additional financial column to its Saturday edition, the Mail Investment Extra. Newspapers were even adding phone hotlines for subscribers to receive the latest prices, news, and advice. The Mail, which already had an annual stocks and shares competition gave this even greater attention in the 1980s. Newspaper editors also published financial advice guides. Michael Walters, the relevant editor of the Daily Mail, published several books ranging in topics from penny stocks to new share issues.

           It may have seemed like a return to old practices but, compared to the coverage of the 1960s, the newspapers now put a different spin on investing. It became something of a pastime, practically a form of entertainment or diversion like gambling, fed by the press. Previously, the likes of Patrick Sergeant went so far as to say one should “put a year’s pay in the bank before you buy an Ordinary share”. Quite a bit more recently, Robert Head wrote in his ‘Mirror Money’ pages that “… shares are a risk. And nobody should buy until they’ve bought their own home, have loads of life insurance, a decent pension plan and at least three month’s wages safely tucked away …”.

           This sort of caution was a thing of the past, especially by the late 1980s. Harold Baldwin, a writer for several newspapers, had published a book, Shares: A Beginners’ Guide, that featured a slot machine on the cover. Investing in shares looked rather like betting on a horse or the outcome of an FA Cup Final. Outside print, a stock market themed game show was even launched on Channel 4 in 1988.

           Indeed, investing had never seemed so simple; it was easy and even fun. Newspapers featured stories of those who had made large sums from their speculations. They were not the sort of enthusiast independent investors that studied the market closely but more of an everyman and woman. The Daily Mail featured Diana Crook in a 1985 ‘Money Mail’ article; housewife Diana Crook said of making a “£6,000 profit on the Stock Market” that “I can’t add up and didn’t even take maths O-level but I enjoy investing”. Smaller investors tended to sell the shares recommended by the papers soon after buying them. Share tips would soon jump from the page and onto screens. In the 1990s, financial coverage on television, and later the internet, grew and the newspapers stopped being the only place to follow markets.

City Slickers Case

           Still, the tabloid press was committed to financial coverage with investments in shares getting a fair share of the newsprint. The Mirror’s money column was replaced by ‘City Slickers’ in 1998. It recommended individual shares in the style of Derek Dale in the 1960s, though this time focused on technology stocks at the peak of the dotcom bubble. The column’s portfolio of stocks tipped by Anil Bhoyrul and James Hipwell, its columnists, did very well against the competition. Following the pattern of a financial editor, the pair published their own book on investing.

            However, in 2000, the columnists behind City Slickers were dismissed and the column was discontinued. Piers Morgan, then editor of the Mirror, was investigated for buying £67,000 worth of shares in celebrity-entrepreneur Alan Sugar’s computer company Viglen plc just before City Slickers was to promote them in a column titled “Sugar to Head Next Gold Rush”. The shares doubled.

Source: Investigative Blog, ‘Press Gang’, (press-gang.org)

            That the editors behind the financial sections of newspapers could use their position to influence the prices of securities was recognized with the advent of a popular financial press in the early 20th century. Nigel Lawson supposedly hired Jim Slater only after receiving a promise from Slater that he wouldn’t trade in shares shortly before recommending them; a promise the latter was believed to have broken. In the case of small companies especially, the power of newspapers to move a market was pronounced.

            In any case, the same sort of accusation made of Piers Morgan was then made of Bhoyrul and Hipwell themselves, on a larger scale and with more serious consequences. The Companies Investigation Branch of the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry’s looked into the matter and discovered their practice of buying shares in the companies they tipped before the column went out was regularly employed. The two columnists were tried for these crimes in 2005, found guilty, and sentenced, in the case of Hipwell to six months in jail.

Lesson

            Tabloid coverage of the financial markets in Britain expanded and contracted with interest in company shares. In the 1940s and 1970s, attention was directed elsewhere. In the 1960s, 1980s, and beyond, the mass market press dedicated significant coverage to finance and to share tips in particular. These fluctuations suggest the press largely followed, rather than led, the public into the markets. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt the content of newspapers influenced investment decisions. Even professional investors observed the tabloids if only to see what the broader public was reading in relation to the markets.

           In any case, the quality of the advice offered was questionable at best. Still, with growing affluence and perhaps the weakening of social insurance schemes as well, investing in shares has never been more important or widespread. However, education of a formal sort, or accessible quality advice, was and still is lacking.

More from the Tontine Coffee-House

           Read about Dow Jones & Co., which advanced financial journalism, and Business Week’s coverage as the Great Depression set it. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter or checking out book recommendations, which include many of the sources often referenced in my posts. 

Further Reading

1.      Currie, David M., et al. “Chapter 9: The City Slickers Share Price Scam.” Handbook of Frauds, Scams, and Swindles: Failures of Ethics in Leadership, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLA, 2009, pp. 93–99.

2.      Edwards, Amy. “‘The Moneymen’s Sunday Sermon’: The Making of a Mass-Market Financial Advice Industry.” Are We Rich Yet?: The Rise of Mass Investment Culture in Contemporary Britain, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2022, pp. 136–172.

3.      Heinemann, Kieran. “Chapter 3: The Financial Press and the Investing Public.” Playing the Market: Retail Investment and Speculation in Twentieth-Century Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2021.

4.      Porter, Dilwyn. “‘City Slickers’ in Perspective: The Daily Mirror, its Readers and their Money, 1960-2000.” Media History, vol. 9, no. 2, Aug. 2003, pp. 137–152.

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