Comment: Neil Collins' demise could end journalists owning shares

Comment by David Parsley – former editor of City AM

Let’s face it, what forced Neil Collins to resign at Reuters Breakingviews was not in the same league as the events that unfolded during Piers Morgan’s editorship of the Daily Mirror.

The City Slickers scandal was the worst example of journalists’ abuse of sensitive market information in recent times. Indeed, Collins’s offence is not even in the same universe.

Sure, financial journalists who are fortunate enough to have an inside track on City gossip should treat such privilege with great care. But should that mean hacks are never permitted to own shares, like everyone else in the world, including the City pinstripes? Because that’s where we’re heading if Collins’s unfortunate demise is anything to go by. And, let’s not pretend insider dealing has been wiped out among the barrow boys and girls in the Square Mile despite the inactivity of the authorities on such crime.

Before moving on to the back story, we should also consider Collins’s version of events has not been disputed by anyone at Thomson Reuters, he’s not being investigated by the City watchdogs and no-one has accused him of breaking the law.

So, the background. Collins was saving for his old age, like millions do, via a self-invested personal pension (SIPP). Millions of people have them because the government tells us we need one.

As part of such a SIPP Collins’s money is invested in various stocks and shares in the hope that when he arrives at his retirement age of choice he may have a decent income with which to enjoy his dotage.

He, again like millions of others, watched the collapse in BP shares following the Gulf oil spill earlier this year and did not believe they would stay bumping along the sea bed for long. He was right.

Where things went awry for Collins was that he bought these BP shares just four days after writing a balanced and critical comment about BP at the end of last month. He was, according to Reuters’ internal rules, supposed to disclose his interest in BP. It’s similar to the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code that governs all financial journalists.

Following an internal investigation, Collins told his employers that he also sold Marks & Spencer shares he had inherited from his father’s estate five days after commenting on the retailer’s results. A breach of the financial journalism code of practice? Well, yes, but let’s put this into perspective. It is, as Collins explained in his resignation letter to his boss Hugo Dixon, more than likely to be a mere technicality.

Neil Collins is an honourable man and one of the greatest City commentators the financial media has ever seen. For three decades he has been at the sharp end of financial journalism.

During his 20-year tenure as City editor of the Daily Telegraph his became the must-read business column for anyone with even the slightest interest in the City. He continued this fine work on the Evening Standard and was a great hire for Dixon, the founder of Breakingviews.

Having been held in such a high regard for such a long time, what Collins said mattered. He could, indeed, move markets, boost or destroy share prices with a single stroke of his keyboard.

In other words, if Neil Collins had the slightest inclination to profit from his musings he would have, long ago, bought himself a Caribbean Island and retired on his ill-gotten gains. He did not do that because he is an honourable man.

He had a pension pot, so what? Did he write about BP or Marks & Spencer because he wanted to make a quick buck? I doubt that very much.

I wonder if Hugo Dixon has a pension plan with investments in various shares. I wonder if David Schlesinger, Reuters editor-in-chief, has any investments. Indeed, does Tom Glocer, the chief executive of Thomson Reuters, have any stocks tucked away?

If any of those three men do have a pension plan or any other form of share ownership, do they ensure Reuters never writes about any of the shares they may own? Reuters would have very little to report if they did.

As a result of the investigation into Collins, Schlesinger also discovered several other members of the Breakingviews team had broken the group’s rules on share ownership. For some reason, only Collins felt enough pressure to resign.

Before anyone suggests I will profit from such positive comments about Collins, I should declare I have no interest in his wellbeing or financial future. Despite more than a decade in the business press myself, I never actually met the man. I merely admired him from afar.

The opinion above has been formed after talking to half a dozen or so of Collins’ contemporaries, former colleagues and even a couple of serious rivals. Not a single one of them believes for a second Collins had any malicious intent in his dealings and they all agreed he had been treated in a shocking manner.

Will these events damage Collins’s reputation? Maybe for a nano-second but he’ll be back.

. . . oh, by the way, I don’t think I own any shares in Thomson Reuters. I have a couple of pensions that I waste money on but I don’t know what they’re invested in as I never asked. So, therefore, I actually might have a financial interest in Thomson Reuters after all. Bugger and blast. Sod it . . . I resign.

David Parsley is the founder of parsleymedia.com, the media training and editorial services group. He was also the founding editor of City AM and previously worked on the business desks of the Sunday Express and Sunday Times

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