Fair warning: this is a newspaper column about the media. We love nothing more than talking about ourselves. But it’s about more than that – it’s about democracy, shareholder capitalism and the value of a single share.
When you were taught back at school about listed companies, the shareholder was the all-powerful hero of the story. With your handful of shares, you could ask questions of the biggest CEOs in the land, hold them to account, and – should the business do as well as you’d hoped – reap the rewards in the form of dividends and a rising share price. It’s the same logic that drove the Tell Sid campaigns of the 1980s, with shareholder capitalism the buzzword of the day.
In truth, today’s retail investors rarely get much of a chance to get their word in edgeways. Firms are – understandably – focussed on institutional investors more than Mrs Jones and her small holding. Investor relations folks would naturally rather carve out time on a roadshow for a prospective big investor than an existing small investor. Punters holding their small but perfectly formed share will have the chance to ask questions at the AGM but such events are increasingly farcical.
It’s not the only reason, but it’s hardly a surprise the number of individual investors in UK companies has tanked in recent years.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the media. One of our roles, as we see it, is to ask those questions that our readers, and indeed those smaller investors, might want us too: analysts can deep-dive into page 42, figure 3b, but there are bigger issues at play and our readers deserve answers from the companies they may very well hold shares in.
On Monday, Shell emailed reporters informing them that the media Q&A section of their next quarterly update had been pulled. We’ll be allowed to ‘listen in’ to the analyst call, but not ask questions – or follow-up on questions.
Now, Shell are not the first to do this. The energy market seems to be something of a pioneer. We have been promised ‘ad hoc’ access to company leaders.
Scrutiny matters. This newspaper wants to celebrate the best of British business, to champion our biggest companies, to make financial, economic and business news available to the widest possible number of readers. Hell, the newspaper is free, for goodness’ sake. But we can’t do that as well as we’d like to, and as well as you’d deserve, if business leaders refuse to take questions from us and indeed our colleagues elsewhere.
It may be smart business sense for Shell to avoid the possible awkwardness of being asked a fair question, and not having a good answer. It’s a shame they’ve chosen this approach, however, rather than transparency – not just for their shareholders, or our readers, but for the reputation of business itself.