Occasionally headlinemoney, the personal finance press release and background information website, interviews a personal finance writer. In February 2007 it was my turn and this piece appeared on the site on 17 February. The interview was done by Roger Anderson the founder of www.headlinemoney.com and himself a well known personal finance journalist.

The headlinemoney interview: Paul Lewis

As part of our occasional series of interviews with some of the industry’s movers and shakers, Money Box presenter Paul Lewis talks to Roger Anderson.

Paul Lewis, 58, is a freelance journalist and the voice of BBC Money Box for the past six years. He is also an atheist, a vegetarian and an authority on author Wilkie Collins. And his website www.paullewis.co.uk is well worth a visit.

On your website you say your head is capitalist, your heart is socialist and your soul anarchist. Which one rules Paul Lewis?

I knew I’d regret putting that up. It’s more to indicate the conflicts that are within people generally. Obviously the country runs on the basis of business, but I think deep down I have a great sense of fairness – which could perhaps be called socialist – and I think that in many journalists there is a streak of anarchy. It’s our duty to check and, where necessary, undermine the rules. Many of the current campaigns about bank charges are very much saying – you’ve been doing this for years but it’s wrong and we’re going to challenge it. I’m probably not a capitalist, but I’m a bit of a socialist and a tiny bit of an anarchist.

There’s always quite a lot on Money Box these days about the financial treatment of the underprivileged. Is that down to your influence?

Money Box has certainly changed but that’s not down to me. I was brought on to do items on benefits and social security about ten years ago, so even then I think they recognised that a programme about money had to be more than just for people who had money to invest. There is a general understanding on the programme that we have to cover all aspects of money, whether it’s somebody trying to get an extra couple of pounds on their pension credit or somebody with tens of thousands of pounds in Equitable Life.

Money Box has a very middle class listener base. Do you perhaps worry a bit that the people who should be listening to it aren’t?

Well, I don’t know about who should be listening to it. I suppose its true that a lot of people don’t listen to Money Box but that’s their loss isn’t it. Radio 4 has a particular audience and Money Box inevitably has its share of that audience. But we get thousands of emails from people who are not part of the traditional Radio 4 audience, as it might be characterised. We get a lot of young people; we get a lot of people with no money and huge debts. We get a lot of people for whom an investment programme would not be interesting. I think that’s partly because of the work we do on the web, partly because we trail the programme on BBC1 Breakfast every Saturday and partly because we have made a conscious decision to do things on topics like students and debt.

As a freelance presenter, how do you fit in with what goes on behind the scenes at Money Box?

I’m only the voice of Money Box. The work of the editorial and production team really starts on a Tuesday when they start putting together initial prospects for the programme, which they discuss with me via email or on the phone. By Thursday night we have a fairly clear idea of what’s going to be in the programme. I sometimes go in on Thursday to do interviews – Fridays I’m always in. Friday is a long day – normally 8am till 8pm.

Most of Money Box is live though, isn’t it?

Yes – the programme always goes out live and, on average, most of the content is live. But we do pre-record things if it seems more suitable.

What, for legal reasons?

No not legal – we very rarely have any legal issues. It’s more about the sound of it and how it will feel – for example, it may actually come across better interviewing somebody in their office. Ideally as many guests as possible are live but some people, strangely enough, don’t like giving up their Saturdays.

Who was your most difficult interviewee on Money Box?

I hate questions like that. I suppose the one that got the most immediate hostile reaction was a pre-recorded interview with the FSA’s Howard Davies. It was after Equitable Life and there was a report criticising the way that the FSA had dealt with things. The FSA’s annual report had also just come out and it showed the remuneration of the board and they all got a bonus despite the fact that there had been criticism of the way they had handled things. So I asked Howard Davies whether, given what had happened, he would be giving his bonus back. To my surprise he replied: “Oh well, my bonus has already been cut,” which was news to me. Then I said, “So you’ve already been fined for your failures” and he blustered and replied “not really”. After the interview, the press office rang up and said that if we broadcast that bit we would never get an interview with anybody at the FSA again. But we did broadcast it. I never ever got another interview with Howard Davies, except once when I door-stepped him at a press conference, but the FSA as a body didn’t maintain that line and now we have absolutely excellent relationships with them – but of course all the personnel are different now.

What do you do when a company won’t come on the programme to answer some complaint or another?

More and more senior people, in banks especially, won’t come on air – and it’s not just a Money Box thing. My first reaction is that some of these people are paid more in a year than I would ever earn in my entire life, so why are they frightened of an interview with a two-bit financial journalist?

So what does the team do about it if they can’t be persuaded?

I think our attitude generally is that if they will not come on air, then they have refused and we will say so. People fail to realise that when they come on to the programme it can only do their company good. They can put up their hands and say sorry, this did go wrong and this is how we’re sorting it out. If that is simply put into some kind of statement to be read out on the programme it just looks very bad for them. I don’t understand what their PR advisers are thinking of.

And of course you can fill the slot by getting a third party in to say something even nastier about the company…

Well, yes – if somebody won’t come on you have only one side. There are two things we always try to do: if they send a statement we will read out relevant bits of it – of course, I am then put in the unenviable position of putting their point of view. And just because someone won’t do an interview, we won’t drop the story. That’s important. They cannot censor what’s on.

What about getting personal finance editors to comment? Or are they a bit shy in coming forward, not wanting to give up their Saturday mornings for £25 or whatever the BBC pays these days?

We don’t tend to use other journalists, any more than Patrick Collinson would ring me up and ask for my comment on something he was doing. Obviously if a journalist has broken a wonderful exclusive then we might get them on to talk about it and that does happen very occasionally. The only other journalists we normally use are BBC specialists, such as the economics editor Evan Davis.

Do you get good feedback from the Money Box website?

Tremendous. We get story ideas, confirmation of problems or new examples. There’s a very good cross-section of people responding. Email and the web are two things that have happened since I’ve been on Money Box and they’ve really transformed our relationship with our audience.

And you also have scripts of the programme online – which are actually quite a good resource for journalists…

Yes we have complete transcripts on the web going back three years and we also have access to them back to 2000.

When do they normally go up on the website?

On a Tuesday – because we have to check them before they are put on site.

What if somebody has said something that’s inaccurate?

We would put up a correction. Or rather a clarification – Joe Bloggs said this but what he meant was… On a live programme things will be said that are not quite right, that are not the complete picture, and we have to put that right. But that said we are very careful about the experts we ask to come on to the programme in the first place.

On your own website, you describe yourself as a freelance journalist and broadcaster specialising in personal finance, business, consumer rights, and related legal matters. How long have you been freelance?

Just over 20 years.

You don’t mention anything you did pre-1986. Where was Paul Lewis then?

I worked in what is called the voluntary sector these days. I worked for Age Concern as an information officer, at the National Council for One Parent Families as a policy officer – and eventually as deputy director – and then I ran a charity called Youth Aid which dealt with youth unemployment problems. All that time I was writing in my spare time – indeed I’ve written for Saga Magazine for about 30 years – and in 1986 I won a journalism prize and I thought if I can win a prize writing in the evenings then I can make a living at it. So I gave up my job and began to work with the Telegraph and various periodicals and I’ve made my living at it ever since.

How did you get into broadcast?

I started doing afternoon television and advice programmes – I was on as an expert because of my background. I was brought on as a person who could explain the intricacies of housing benefits or state pensions. Then I got some work on Money Box.

Do you do broadcast training for institutions?

No – we’re not allowed to. I have in the distant past but the BBC has clamped down recently. They have said that anyone who presents regularly can’t do training. But people can see what sort of things I can do from my website.

Also on your website I see you have strong feelings about signing over copyright. Indeed, you highlight how you refused to sign Money Marketing’s copyright agreement and a Correspondent’s Week written by you therefore went unpublished.

Yes, I have very strong feelings about what’s grandly called intellectual property. When you make your living from what you write, you can’t sell somebody the complete rights to that work because then it is out of your hands. Money Marketing wanted all rights for ever. That meant two things: if I had wanted to put that piece on my website, and I always put everything I write on my website, strictly speaking I would have had to ask their permission, which I wasn’t prepared to do. And secondly they wanted me to sign away my moral rights. Moral rights are pretty minimal but include the right to be named as author and for it not to be edited to bring you into disrepute – in other words so that you look stupid .

Doesn’t your anarchist soul tell you to ignore such small print because actually it will never be applied in practice anyway?

That’s a very subtle point. But I suppose there is a bolshy side of me which says bugger it, I’m not going to put up with this.

There’s another thing on your website which, if we talk about it too much, will probably mean I end up out of my depth…

You’ve probably read more on my website than anybody except me and my mother …

It’s that reference to the power of Occam’s Razor – which in my book equates to the salesman’s principle of KISS (keep it simple stupid). In other words, if a person is presented with two pension plans, he will pick the one that seems the most straightforward.  That’s a bit dangerous in the world of personal finance isn’t it? If a salesman keeps it simple, you miss out on all the catches…

What I’m getting at is the frightening move to what I call complexification. There are 5,000 different mortgages and 1,500 pension schemes. This is far more than a human being can rationally choose between and to my mind what the public wants are simple products: a savings scheme that gives them 5.5 per cent and if they take money out they don’t get fined a month’s interest. Or if they put in £1, £100 or £100,000 they get the same rate. And if financial products were much simpler you’d have much less mis-selling. You’d have much less mis-buying. Ultimately, money is just simple arithmetic. You can make it complicated but the reason for doing that is often to fool people into buying things they don’t need.

We can’t mention your website without referring to the fact that it’s also the home of masses of material on Wilkie Collins. To the extent that one wonderful headline reads: “Lunacy on the Isle of Man - Collins did not campaign for better treatment of Manx lunatics”.

Yes, that headline relates to a little bit of research I did for my rather obscure hobby. I came across Wilkie Collins probably about 15 years ago and I fell in love with his writing. I think he’s a writer’s writer – all I mean by that is that he’s Paul Lewis’s writer. He’s simple, straightforward and explains some very complicated legal concepts very simply in the context of a novel. I could read him endlessly. Then I began looking into his life and have sort of become an expert …

You are one of the country’s leading experts by all accounts…

I would never say that – I’m not a professor, I don’t work in an academic institution. But I did edit his letters and I probably know as much about him as three or four other people in the world.

Did you put together your own website or did you get somebody else to do the legwork?

It’s entirely my own work.

So you learnt all about HTML?

Yes – but that is why it’s slightly old-fashioned. I’ve never learnt XML.

It’s a bloody good website, if I may say so.

Well thank you but its not dynamically run. Every page is there and it’s all relatively simple. To me a website is an enormous filing cabinet in the sky. I’m sure I use my website more than anybody else uses it. It means I can find every word I’ve written or spoken in public for the last ten years which is very useful. I think a lot of websites are overdesigned and forget they are an information resource.

What papers do you read for pleasure?

The Telegraph and the Guardian.

What about personal finance pages?

I think Saturday’s Guardian has the best without question. But to me all the Saturday supplements have a problem in that they are now printed on a Thursday and have a sort of weekly magazine feel about them – rather than a newsy feel.

So how do you spend your Saturday afternoons and Sundays?

Saturday afternoons I’m normally pretty tired because Friday’s a long day and Saturdays begin at about 7am. Money Box finishes at 12.30pm but then I normally write something for their website and so I’m there till two.  But I spend the weekends, such as they are, relaxing. I don’t have a great going-out hobby like sailing.

Coming back to your website for one final question. I note you give an amusing list of many other Paul Lewises. How often do you get mixed up with the Guardian’s Paul Lewis or the one on the South Wales Evening Post?

The Guardian is the frequent one. I’ve never been in touch with that Paul Lewis although I have tried to contact him. I do get emails for him. One accused him of not doing his research so I was able to email back and say, talking of research – you’ve got the wrong man. I think he’s very good actually and he writes on things I’d like to write about. He’s my alter ego.

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