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Q&A with Joris Luyendijk

Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images

Joris Luyendijk knew almost nothing about London’s financial sector when he started running the Guardian’s banking blog in 2011. It made him perfect for the job. In the wake of the financial crisis, then-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger asked Luyendijk to create something which would serve as a layman’s guide to the often opaque world of banking.

Hoping to find out who or what had triggered the financial meltdown that started in 2008 (in the opening paragraph of his book, Luyendijk equates London’s financial district to an airplane with an empty cockpit), and whether the sector has been reformed enough to prevent another crash from happening (Luyendijk asserts that bankers went back to business as usual in no time), Luyendijk interviewed around 200 people working in London’s City. In his new book Swimming with sharks, he collates his findings and reaches his sobering conclusions. We spoke to Luyendijk about his self-styled brand of “deep journalism” and what he took away from two years immersed in London’s City. Here’s what he told us…

What was different about your journalistic approach to the world of banking?
Most reporters focus on the news, what happened today. For me, it’s about what happens every day and uncovering the underlying structures. That takes a lot more time, but comes with the advantage that you don’t need to rely on the leadership and PR-types. They tend to make themselves exclusive and play journalists off against each other by selectively offering quotes about the latest developments. If you look at the reality of the banking world as a whole, you can talk to anyone who works within that reality.

Why was it so important to approach the City in this anthropological way?
If you don’t know a lot about the financial world already, it’s very difficult to follow financial news. Until 2008 that didn’t seem like that much of a problem, because it appeared as though everything was working quite well. After 2008 it became quite clear that it’s unwise to leave the banks to bankers. We thought, what if we send an outsider in and have them document their learning curve, focusing on an audience of people who want to know more, but can’t get through the day to day coverage without prior knowledge. That became my approach. This kind of journalism is a supplement to daily coverage, rather than a substitute. Ideally, people who have read my blog will start following the financial pages. News remains important.

What did you learn by approaching the banking sector this way?
That there are plenty of people within organisations who are deeply frustrated with their leadership and the PR types hanging around them, tasked with preventing the experts from complaining in public. When you create a safe context for these people to talk in, they are willing to talk. What struck me is how cynical many of the regular financial journalists were. There was a lot of ‘There’s no point, the political parties won’t do anything about it and the public isn’t interested anyway’ – that really struck me.

What other sectors need to be looked at this way?
Lobbyists. Only a very small part of policy is determined by politicians. Most of it is hammered out by civil servants in consultation with stakeholders. For both Westminster and Brussels, that would be very interesting to look at. But there are so many sectors. When I was working on the banking blog I got a lot of emails saying you should do this for the pharmaceutical industry, consulting, IT, oil, food… Exposing the inner workings of all of those sectors. I’d rather not do the same thing again though. That would be boring.

Swimming with sharks is published by Faber. Luyendijk’s banking blog entries are available here.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
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A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
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Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
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A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
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The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
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