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It was the media wot won it.

It was a classic David and Goliath victory when the Halifax Bank announced that it was to give the millions Graham Price stole from his investors back to them. But along the way, the media played an integral role in the case. Here, Alastair Milburn argues that the case demonstrates the powerful role the nation's media continues to play in our lives

AS U-TURNS go, the Halifax Bank's surprise announcement that it was to give more than pounds 3.5m back to the victims of con man Graham Price was right up there with George Bush Senior's famous, 'Read my lips - no new taxes.'

As the investors began to brace themselves for a lengthy legal battle against the banking giant, the Halifax stunned the victims by announcing that it was going to pay back their lost savings and, to cap it all, it was going to pay them 5% interest on their original investments.

Was this the same bank that less than four weeks ago proclaimed, 'Mr Price's clients deposited no money with the Halifax in connection with these 'investment accounts',' and thereby washed its hands of any responsibility to the investors?

Incredibly, the bank then set about reclaiming the 'false' interest payments Price made to some of the 85 victims, claiming that the money should never have been paid, and actually still belonged to the bank.

It was shortly after this statement was issued that Stephen Thompson of Darwin Gray Solicitors called me. He said he was representing most of the Graham Price victims, including their appointed chairperson Jen Ellis.

Jen, 58, had her life savings, around pounds 120,000, stolen by Price. When I first spoke to her she was tearful, and also very scared.

Forced back into work when she should have been enjoying her retirement, Jen and her fellow victims were determined to take on the full might of the Halifax to get their money back. Darwin Gray and I agreed to help.

Did we really think that we would ever see the bank give the victims every single penny of the millions they lost to Price?

Probably not - well, certainly not until the case had been fought out in the courts for a few years.

But, as it was, the Halifax backed down in just four weeks. Why?

While the legal sabre-rattling had begun, I have little doubt that it was, as they say in the industry, the media wot won it.

In public relations, it is not uncommon to quantify the results of a PR campaign by equating the coverage to the cost of what it would have cost to buy that space through advertising. For the past four weeks, the cost - or rather - the impact of the adverse publicity Halifax attracted through coverage of the case would have amounted to several hundreds of thousands pounds.

Add to that the impact of that coverage on existing and potential Halifax investors, and you begin to sense the sort of conversations going on among nervous executives at the bank over the past few weeks.

The reality of this case is that the investors would still be penniless if it wasn't for the media's involvement.

I was the 'front man' for the Halifax investors, with all requests for interviews going through my office. Day after day they came in, and in almost all cases, we obliged.

The result was some harrowing stories of lost inheritances, lost homes, lost retirements and ultimately, lost dreams. There for the grace of God, went a lot of us.

For the executives at the Halifax the coverage was devastating, sparking an incredible capitulation.

I believe that capitulation was further prompted by the re-emergence of that once great bastion of the industry, the editorial comment.

Here beats the real heart and soul of the media. It might not be the most popular page in the paper (indeed, some 3% read the comment in my paper when I was an editor), but it remains the true voice of the publication.

Over time, its impact has become diluted, but I have no doubt that the editorial comments I have read, demanding justice for the Halifax investors, aided the victims' cause considerably.

They are the conscience of a paper, the conscience of its readers, and ultimately, the conscience of society. In demanding justice for people such as the Halifax victims, an editorial comment is speaking for society, and when you are the subject matter who is being accused, it is very difficult not to do the right thing.

Four weeks after that first, tetchy statement when it tried to rid itself of any blame, the bank announced, 'The Halifax is to put right the wrong done by Price.'

It was a victory for David over Goliath, but also a massive victory for the media.

Alastair Milburn is managing director of Effective Communication, and the former editor of the South Wales Echo
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 3, 2005
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