At my increasingly advanced age, I have learned a healthy scepticism about stuff the media tells me. So when lots of papers and pundits were telling me that George Lee was a uniquely talented individual, a thoroughbred among cart-horses who, given the chance, would have got on to the rail and won us victory in our race against permanent recession – no, I didn’t believe it. I’d spent too many years hearing him neigh from beneath the same ideological blinkers that most politicians and their advisers wear, and watching him feed on the same old capitalist clover, to believe that he came from some different stable. Or, in an entirely separate sphere: when the Tom Dunne radio show on NewsTalk and its listeners told me recently that Amy Winehouse was the fifth greatest female vocalist “of all time”, that Kate Bush was number-one, that five of the top ten were Brits, eight of them were white and that “all time” apparently means since the invention of stereo (a technology ironically eschewed by NewsTalk itself) – no, I didn’t believe that either. Again, I’d spent too many years hearing real soul in the singers that Dunne’s would-be-cool listeners disdain, from Billie Holiday to Etta James to Joni Mitchell to Mary J. Blige to bloody Beyoncé even, to believe that the programme’s weeklong exercise in familiar prejudice bore any relation to musical reality.
But you know, when it comes to money… these days I’ll believe anything. So I really sat up and took notice when I heard the results of the Celebrity Investment Contest on RTE Radio 1’s Saturday-morning programme, The Business. This involved three well-known people “with no investment experience” playing with a notional €20,000 over the course of the winter and seeing who came out on top – the winner getting some cash for a favoured charity. Well, the loser, by a mile and a furlong, was newsreader Anne Doyle, who made a mere 40% return in three months, a period during which equity markets were flat and worse. That’s right, she added €8,000 to her initial €20,000 and wasn’t even in the running in this particular race. Neck and neck at the front were Father Brian D’arcy (with all the moral authority of the church behind him) and rugby guy Shane Byrne, whose final account balances were in the region of €73,000 – making profits of more than 250 per cent in three months. These guys made Celtic Tiger property speculators look like grannies queuing in the post office; they made Sean Fitzpatrick look like Gandhi. Holy Moley, they made some serious, albeit notional, money. And they were in the ha’penny place compared to the guy who won the parallel listeners’ competition, turning his notional 20K into an eye-watering €454,421. I can’t be the only listener who went scurrying to competition sponsor Delta Index to see how to get a piece of ‘investments’ like that.
Now, I’ve got to say I don’t often listen to The Business. My wife, who is a writer and radio producer, reckons its presenter John Murray is one of the best in the business, articulate and smart and funny and wickedly capable of making complex subjects accessible – which probably explains why I hate him. That, plus my kneejerk lefty view that virtually all business coverage in this country is basically neoliberal propaganda, and that The Business is all the more insidious because of its thin veneer of entertainment and clever slagging of pompous business jargon. But to each his own, right? So anyway, it could be that in my absence the programme gave a whole lot of ‘don’t try this at home’ warnings. It could be that Murray and The Business explained that Delta Index, which ran the competition and advised the competitors, is really in the business of taking spread-bets on market performance from clients rather than managing their ‘investments’ in the traditional understand of that word. Real investors, after all, are those great people the propagandists keep telling us about, who put money into enterprises in the hope that they’ll succeed, and in so doing help to make it possible for the enterprises to do just that. Whereas with spread-betting, you’re just as likely to be hoping for something to fail – just ask all those gamblers who have made a bundle betting that your home was going to go into negative equity when they put their money on falling property prices. (They’ll tell you that you should have been ‘hedging’.) Plus with spread-betting, profits aren’t subject to nasty old socially responsible stuff like, you know, taxes.
But on the programmes I heard and on the website for The Business the contest was consistently called, simply, an “investment” contest, and Delta Index was referred to as a “trading website”. Now obviously Delta Index is a reputable business, and since 2008 it has been regulated, for what it’s worth, by the Irish Financial Regulator. But even from a less kneejerk-lefty perspective than mine, it should be questionable that the national broadcaster spends three months promoting this particular form of trading, then presents stratospheric profits as though they were the normal result of such “investment”. Lest I sound like that dreadful, nightmarishly unchanging advert that rolls around every year for “Entrepreneur of the Year”, let me underline: I’m not suggesting ‘real’ investment is always, or even often, socially desirable. I’m also not moralising against spread-betting. I’m just asking if the media have got their stories straight on this one, and if, perhaps, in this desperate economy they may be encouraging people to take desperate measures.