Lambert slams US media over WorldCom scandal

Lambert: more cynisism in UK

Former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert has taken US journalists to task following the WorldCom scandal and accused them of "hero-worshipping" entrepreneurs.

Lambert said that almost every week a story broke about mismanagement and fraud at the very top of corporate America. And he asked: "Where was the media when all this was brewing?"

He suggested the US media should have been wise to WorldCom’s colourful chief executive, Bernie Ebbers, a former milkman and nightclub bouncer.

"You didn’t have to be a genius to spot the fact that Bernie Ebbers was not your normal business leader," said Lambert.

He claimed the booming economic conditions of the Nineties created a climate in which borrowing became so cheap the "crazies and cranks" could get away with murder.

"Another ingredient in this explosive mix and one that was actively served by the media came from America’s longstanding hero-worship of entrepreneurs, people who struggle against the odds to create wealth.

"In normal circumstances this is one of the most attractive features of American culture but in the special times of the late Nineties it was an absolute disaster.

"All these characters were feted as national heroes. Most astonishing for me was the way the American media began to take ordinary business leaders seriously.

"This was a surprise because American journalism has a proud history of kicking American bosses up the backside. Business leaders, it seemed, could walk on water."

In contrast, the British business press, Lambert claimed, was much more cynical about entrepreneurs than in the US and was the "most adversarial in the world." He claimed British journalists’ hostility helped keep business honest.

But he added that business journalists still needed better training, particularly in the basic principles of national accounting.

"Journalists everywhere need to think about what has happened to the US business media in the past few years – this is a classic warning of what can go wrong in our trade and what happens when journalists forget to say. ‘the Emperor has no clothes’."

Lambert was challenged by the BBC’s former political correspondent, John Cole, who said British journalists had not done well over the Equitable Life crisis.

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