The national media’s disinterest in small business is stunting Britain’s ability to grow, argues Ben Pinnington

7th September 2010

A few years ago I accompanied a national newspaper business reporter on a tour of small businesses in Manchester. […]

A few years ago I accompanied a national newspaper business reporter on a tour of small businesses in Manchester. I was then promoting the small business sector running the press office for national lobby group the Forum of Private Business. Towards the end of the visit we were discussing why people set up in business. His mood darkened and he snapped that, for many “running a small business is a lifestyle choice”.

The country is in economic crisis. Small firms as the engine room of the economy are being tasked with the daunting job of leading the country’s drive out of recession. My concern is that even now, in the jaws of a recession from hell, understanding of, and passion about, small business in large parts of the media still remains atrocious. Today small firms employ a third of the UK workforce, half the private sector workforce and contribute over 50pc of the UK’s GDP. Without a dynamic small business sector our economy shrinks and everything suffers –public services, job creation, taxation, wealth creation, charity donations, media advertising and so on. But where is the recognition of that in media? Where is the appreciation that small firms need the media’s immense power behind them to help fuel the economic recovery – a task made twice as hard by public sector cuts?

Here in the North West we are lucky to have a wealth of media committed to business – The Daily Post, Echo, M.E.N, EN, North West Insider, The Business Desk, the Lancashire Evening Post to name but a few. Their enthusiasm for, and understanding of, small business is absolutely vital. Their consistently excellent coverage helps businesses and the economy enormously. Other regions do not have media in their class and suffer as a result.

But it is on a national scale that the gulf in appreciation of small business is most apparent. Despite the warnings in the media itself, about the crippling impact of public sector cuts and the threat of a double dip recession, what exactly is the national media doing to strengthen the economy? Where are the prime time programmes and the newspaper reports which will inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and offer guidance to those running a firm or thinking of starting up a business? I fully accept the national media covers big business and the city exceptionally well, but that is only half the story of the private sector, as the above figures emphatically demonstrate. And while big business is inherently newsworthy I also detect a hint of vanity in the attitude of some national reporters. Again drawing for experience of the FPB days I remember distinctly trying to get small business issues into the Sunday Times and BBC Radio Five’s then Geoff Randall Sunday evening business programme. On both occasions I was told small firms did not fit. They were competing with big brands and well Golaith was always going to win in news value. Not only was this outlook rather ignorant and ‘big time Charlie’ ,as Alex Ferguson would put it, it was also desperately blinkered.

If small business actually got the national coverage it merits delivered with passion and conviction would it not help the media organisations? The more fierce the furnace of small firms the more sector’s 12m employees can spend on the national brands. The exact brands which advertise in national newspapers and on national television.
Nevertheless a large section of the mainstream media seems oblivious to the fact that such a role is necessary or even exists for it. A cursory glance at TV listings for the week show no coverage of small businesses whatsoever aside from Dragons Den. Dragons Den is good but its focus is finding flaws in usually half baked business ideas rather than examining established firms and how they are run – which would be more helpful to watching small firms and their management.

Delving a little deeper what does the One Show, for example, one of the most hyped programme on television, discuss in its first episode with new ‘cutting edge’ presenters? Otter droppings on the Isle of Skye and a plane crash in the 1940s. With its ability to cover any topic could the One Show not have a regular slot focusing on interesting businesses around the UK?

The point is that there are many fascinating business stories out there – and there is a demand to hear them. I do not believe the public would turn off in their droves if business programmes appeared at prime times. Firstly there is a need for business advice with so many people now setting up in business. We have first hand experience of this. Our client Blue Orchid is one of the biggest business advisers in the region. It has been inundated with queries from people who have lost their jobs in the recession who are turning to becoming self employed. Secondly, the standard of prime time programmes is hardly riveting. Yet more episodes of Police Camera Action, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Celebrity Master Chef. I’m sure these hackneyed programmes could take a break for a day a week. Moreover with the huge talent in the media you can see how imaginative programme makers could make some cracking TV. And in this celebrity obsessed age there are plenty of famous people working in smaller firms across interesting sectors. How about Mick Jagger’s experience running the Rolling Stones business affairs? Or what about sport? Tennis star Roger Federer has his own clothes range as does golfer Ian Poulter. Also in fashion Elle McPherson and Kylie Minogue have their own businesses. Businesses, like opportunities, are everywhere across society. But there is an absence of programmes shedding greater light into the soul of business inspiring people to seize opportunities and the rewards.

Similarly why doesn’t every national newspaper have a weekly or even daily small business page? Surprisingly few do. The Mail in fairness champions small business in its news pages. The Mail on Sunday, the Mirror and the FT also run consistently good small business advice pages.
My feeling is that it is ignorance of business in the media and an apathy of how to make it popular and engaging which is holding back quality programmes and quality coverage. This is a desperate shame when you consider with more passion for small business the media could add rocket fuel to the economy. The BBC as a public service broadcaster in particular needs to address this problem.

by Ben Pinnington

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