How has the media performed during 2004 in shining a light into the darker corners of this vital industry? As usual, greater investment in Energizer batteries is required.

Westpac probably has the most effective public relations of any bank, and their secret is to undertake as little public relations. The almost complete absence of any worthwhile journalism on Westpac in 12 months makes the point. No one in management is talking.

One exception was Crikey’s report on foreign exchange losses at Westpac, initially reported to be $12 million but more recently reported to be $40 million.

The most interesting story on the bank was Westpac’s management of its relationship with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. First, it blundered by bragging over the transfer of its New Zealand retail bank mainframe processing to Australia, a plan announced at the mid-year investor briefing but canned within days after the RBNZ kicked up a stink. Then the regulator rejected Westpac’s complex “buttressed branch” proposal and forced the incorporation of its NZ operations after 143 years as a branch of the Australian bank. This was the story of the year over Westpac, as there are no other contenders.

ANZ has the most considered public relations strategy, and one that has the virtue of complementing its business strategy, which includes being more courteous to, and being seen to be more courteous to, its customers. ANZ stopped shutting branches five years ago; established its own ombudsman a couple of years ago, promotes micro credit and matched savings schemes, and rolls out its chief executive for amiable radio interviews – the only bank to do so.

ANZ did cop a BRW investigation into a four year old dud loan with some colourful connections, but like really every bank, ANZ’s avoided any serious investigation into anything current.

Commonwealth Bank probably thinks it’s had an unfair year in the media, but in reality got off lightly. The bank spat the dummy over a light but legitimate pasting in BRW over internal discontent toward its management team in general and its managing director in particular. The bank pulled its advertising from Fairfax Business Media titles, a ban which remains in place. There’s a lot of intriguing gossip about CBA, but no media outlet is sufficiently confident to turn this into attributed journalism. The criticism of the bank has otherwise been left to the sell-side analysts, a fair chunk of whom doubt the revenue forecasts linked to the bank’s Which New Bank restructuring program, and who doubt that the program goes far enough. The BRW cover on CBA is the best yarn of the year on the bank, because at least they gave it a go.

National Australia Bank of course attempted self-immolation over the first few months of the year, an episode that provided some memorable insights into the bank. The bank’s spinners apparently think they did a great job handling the media during the crisis, as head spinner Robert Hadler argued at business lunch in the middle of the year, and reprised last week at the bank’s media lunch.

NAB achieved some public relations successes. The firing of Frank Cicutto appeared everywhere, including here at the time, as a resignation, and the bank ultimately succeeded in their effort to portray board dissident Catherine Walter as the cause of the board ruckus, when in fact she did the bank a favour. It took a leak with origins at board level (to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald) to expose the serious conflict of interest of at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

This could be too hard on the Financial Review, which did first report, but bury, the conflicts at PwC.

The media tired of NAB, as the media always tires of stories that deserve consistent scrutiny. The loss of $360 million of the forex mess was eclipsed at the end of the year by a write-down at $409 million on information technology, an event that attracted one per cent of the journalism of the former.

The media’s treatment of St George Bank is a scandal. Due to the gender of the chief executive, the bank’s performance and business is less prominent and rarely scrutinised. Rather, in a continuing and near industry-wide display of persistent sexism, the media prefers to write of the bank chief’s fashion sense or family rather than her business competence.

There was a particularly nauseating example in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, in a report supposed to be about the bank’s annual meeting, but which in practice was about the CEO’s family. Kelly, however, might be guilty, and cynically so, of encouraging some of this reporting.

The minnows aren’t worth much of a mention, so don’t spend too long trying to recall any penetrating journalism on Adelaide Bank, Bank of Queensland, BankWest or Suncorp. There wasn’t any. Profit, shares prices and public relations-shepherded interviews were all part of the diet on the minnows, as with the majors, with little light shed of any of them.

The stand out among the minnows in the world of public relations is of course Bendigo Bank, which is spends most of any year virtually drowning in fawning and uncritical endorsements of its “community bank” franchises, the business case for each of which typically depends on locals willing to accept sub-standard rate of returns on investments in the franchise. One twist is that these days many state and federal governments kick in their own subsidy.

One category that constitutes an exception to this assessment of this newsletter’s competitors is in the arena of consumer banking, with a usual diet of reporting and badgering of banks over the level and incidence of bank fees (with some of that in today’s media, and also in this newsletter, courtesy of the Consumer Law Centre of Victoria).

As for the regulators, they haven’t taken any stick either. Like Moses or some other messiah, if APRA or the Reserve Bank say it, it must be right. So; low doc loans: bad. Home lending (in excess): bad. Low cost home loan valuations: bad. Interchange fees: bad.

APRA, admittedly, is a remorseful and reorganised entity, recovering from its reluctance to pull its weight as the HIH insurance con came crashing down at the turn of the decade. APRA’s executives, though, can only wonder at the resilience of the Reserve Bank, where the co-conspirators responsible for the severity and duration the 1990/1991 recession –an economic event whose political legacy remains powerful today – remain in charge of monetary policy.

The RBA of course is in a terrible muddle over payments policy, though this newsletter is almost the only media outlet pointing that out.

Out of this newsletter’s competitors, the Sydney Morning Herald is probably the most interesting source of banking news, with more of the merger and acquisition activity around the fringes of the banking industry reported in that newspaper than elsewhere. Crikey probably had the best of the few real news breaks on the banking round during the year, including the hiring by ANZ of Steve Targett as head of institutional banking and supposedly a chief executive in waiting, and the insider trading charges on a couple of National Australia Bank employees who had traded in AMP shares.

There’s nothing wrong with an emphasis on information on the public record and making the most of public relations, since banks like all big companies maintain an effective wall of defence. At least the disclosure obligations of listed banks, and the much more limited disclosure obligations of other banks and their supporting vendors, provide a basis for analysis of the industry.

But you have to wonder if there’s any need to spin to a media that so cooperatively manipulates itself.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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