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Reputations, consumer protection, and the Reuters saga

In her ill-judged attack on global capitalism, Naomi Klein decried the phenomenon of the corporate logo. One of the sillinesses of this is that logos and brands are essentially bound up with the reputation of a firm. A firm that has a strong brand, a strong reputation for honesty, quality and high service may have taken years, decades even, to aquire it. It can take only days to lose such a reputation through stupidity or dishonesty. That is why reputation is a protection for the consumer. Statists who imagine that we need all manner of regulations to protect consumers against shysters routinely forget this point. A firm that wants to make a whacking great profit is unlikely to deliberately harm or even kill, its customers. Self-interest dictates that a firm that wants to make money over the long term will work like hell to ensure its reputation is deserved. (It may be debateable whether limited liability either enhances or weakens this process, but I have not the time to explore that here).

I got thinking along these lines following the recent mess that has unfolded at Reuters, thanks entirely to sharp-eyed bloggers spotting something funny about photographs. Reuters is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, news service in the world. It both provides information directly to clients such as traders via its screens, offering real-time news alerts, and also wholesale news, providing text and photographs to newspapers and broadcasters. The company – founded by central European aristocrat Baron Julius Reuter – has employed some of the bravest and sharpest journalists in the business, not to mention folk who went on to forge careers in television like Sandy Gall or even thriller writers like Frederick Forsyth and Ian Fleming.

So what has happened over the photo scandal has the whiff of tragedy as well as farce. Its reputation has been badly damaged by the photo scandal. My sources at the firm realise that the situation cannot be shrugged off and it appears this will not happen. Good. The organisation deserves credit for immediately axing the jerk who doctored photographs to make a situation look more exciting and therefore marketable than it was. The whole back-catalogue of this person’s work has been taken down. Reuter’s head of editorial, David Schlesinger – no stranger to speaking his mind about matters – is certainly like to crack the whip, although I am not yet aware that senior managers’ heads may roll because of what has happened. (Stay tuned).

It is a shame in some ways since the company has been recovering financially over the past couple of years. Reuters’ profitability was hammered after the end of the dotcom boom in 2000. Bloated and complacent after the boom years in foreign exchange and equity markets during the 80s and 90s, Reuters’ lost ground to firms like Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s snazzy news and bond-dealing boxes and add-on features enticed away thousands of clients. And yet under new CEO Tom Glocer, the company started to fight back, halting the exodus of clients, simplifying its product range. It left its old HQ in Fleet Street and moved to a gleaming new office in Canary Wharf.

To fight back from this, senior management must show no mercy if there are further signs of this sort of nonsense. If they do not take a hard line, one can be sure business rivals like Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal will be ready to pounce.

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12 comments to Reputations, consumer protection, and the Reuters saga

  • Kim du Toit

    Maybe back in the 1950s, Reuters could have been trusted. From this side of the Pond, however, they’ve always been regarded as something of a bunch of soft liberals — since the 1980s, any pretense of impartiality was tossed aside, and their reports have been almost without exception slanted towards the liberal end of the spectrum.

    Maybe Brits don’t see it as much — because ALL Euro- and Brit media are a hopeless bunch of envious socialists and/or populists, and WAY to the left-hand side of the aisle.

    But from where I sit, Reuters didn’t get their nickname of “Al-Reuters” undeservedly.

  • Daran

    It’s not as if this is an isolated incident. Instead of the usual bias and distortions they have now been caught in an outright fabrication. Hopefully this will cause more people to question the ‘neutrality’ of the newsfeeds they depend on. Even us Europeans are catching on, but very slowly

  • SteveA

    The host of EUReferendum has put together a series of photos appearing to show that coverage of the Qana building collapse was heavily stage-managed, at best, and faked, at worst. This sequence depends on date codes embedded in the digital photo files.

    Various news organizations have responded by casting doubt on the accuracy of those date codes.

    I suggest that one step Reuters could take to restore its reputation is to ensure that all photos it publishes have date codes accurate to within a few seconds (wristwatch accuracy) at least. As the technology becomes available, they should be location-tagged as well. A GPS time-and-location stamp would be good to within a few meters and a few microseconds.

    This would allow independent observers to correlate independent sources as EUReferendum has done, to create a more complete and possibly more accurate picture of any given event.

    If Reuters says they can’t do timetagging, they’re lying. If they say they won’t, they’re trying to hide something.

  • veryretired

    Wishful thinking. The MSM, or at least a major part of it, is committed to the tranzi, UN, NGO, academic, progressive, collectivist viewpoint. In those circles, any effort which embarrasses or hinders Israel and empowers anti-western agents is laudable, regardless of whether it’s faked or not.

    This latest fooforaw will result in some cosmetic “reforms”, a period of lowered profile, and then business as usual. Nothing significant or fundamental will come out of it.

    This has happened in many variations repeatedly over the years. It continues to occur because the people who control these entities care about the opinions of the people they see at parties, diplomatic functions, conferences, and selected social events, not yours or mine.

    There’s an A-list, and ordinary people who actually have to decipher this stuff in magazines and newspapers, or online, aren’t on it.

  • lucklucky

    It didnt finished yet, , see new bogus photos at:

    http://michellemalkin.com/

  • mmm..

    I can’t help wondering whether the Little GreeenFootballs-led blogosphere has got itself worked up unnecessarily into an anti-Reuters lather over this one.

    Reuters acted admirably once evidence of tampering had been uncovered. The person concerned was immediately fired and his back catalogue removed.

    News agencies rely to a huge degree on freelance photo-journalists for material, especially from places such as Lebanon. The reality is that this profession is mainly staffed from the very-left-of-centre and those with axes to grind.

    That said, it is great to see the blogosphere exerting a positive influence on the news rather than just ‘chatting amongst friends’.

  • It will be interesting to compare the way that Reuters deals with this and the way that the BBC and other state funded news outlets do with their mistakes and bias.

  • Dave F

    It isn’t going away. An army of bloggers is now reviewing thousands of published images of the Lebanon conflict and many more suspicious stringer pix are cropping up. It’s an open floodgate with extensive ramifications for hotspot coverage. I suspect cutthroat competition among freelancers in an oversubscribed market may have something to do with it as well as a propaganda impulse.

  • Pommygranate – Freelance or not, Reuters editors are still responsible for the images put out in their name. I’m quite sure Reuters editors knew these (and other) photos were doctored – they just didn’t bank on being caught out and let the deception continue until it was so brazen that someone realised and went ballistic over it, bringing wider scrutiny on the entire operation. al-Hajj or whatever his name is is Reuters’ scapegoat, but this is a manifestation of a deep-rooted attitude and culture within Reuters that greviously compromises its purported stance as non-partisan observer.

  • That should have read “Freelance photographers or not…”

  • What has happened with this Reuters freelancer is disgraceful.

    However, it is one thing to be biased and another to stage events, create a tableau or montage or even just plain photoshop. These actions have to be separated.

    Just because people are liberal or have a liberal slant does not mean they are incapable of taking genuine images.

    Just because they are liberal does not make the genuine images they capture any less real or any less pertinent. If it happened it happend and you just have to either collect your own set of genuine images to balance it or shut ye’ noise. They follow their nose and caputure it. If there were more Libertarian photojournalists out there we might get another view on things. You might say Reuters hires liberal snappers. I say you need to survey the market for talented snappers before accusing Reuters of bias in employment. It might just be that photojournalists are just more likely to be liberal!

    Regardless, if you look at all of Reuters coverage, and not just in conflicts where the US is interested in, the “Al-Reuters” moniker will struggle to not appear the fruit of a biased mind.

    All the above does not alter the fact that it is a massive failing by Reuters, but I believe that they are now reacting now clearly, unlike other media, and unlike their perennial critics.

  • James

    A very good friend of mine runs one of the major news programs at the BBC. He made the point that the BBC relies heavily on freelancers for news and photos throughout the globe. They rarely have time to check the authenticity of their sources. They are more concerned with availability (of opinions, photos etc), the ability to talk fluently on a subject and speed to get the above.

    I dont think the BBC or Reuters are engaged in a left-wing conspiracy to distort the news. They just rely too heavily on left-leaning freelancers and commentators.