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The Telegraph scandal

Written By: - Date published: 7:17 am, February 20th, 2015 - 21 comments
Categories: journalism - Tags: , ,

During the breaking of the recent HSBC banking scandal it was notable that the UK’s Telegraph newspaper had terrible coverage. Now we now why. Three days ago Peter Oborne resigned as the chief political commentator at The Telegraph, dropping this bombshell:

Why I have resigned from the Telegraph

Five years ago I was invited to become the chief political commentator of the Telegraph. It was a job I was very proud to accept. The Telegraph has long been the most important conservative-leaning newspaper in Britain, admired as much for its integrity as for its superb news coverage.

Circulation was falling fast when I joined the paper in September 2010, and I suspect this panicked the owners. … Events at the Telegraph became more and more dismaying. … For the last 12 months matters have got much, much worse.

With the collapse in standards has come a most sinister development. It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.

Late last year I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. “It’s like having your water cut off,” one victim told me.

When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that “there is a bit of an issue” with HSBC. Eventually I gave up in despair and offered the article toopenDemocracy. It can be read here.

I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts. This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems. When I asked HSBC whether the bank had complained about Wilson’s article, or played any role in the decision to remove it, the bank declined to comment.

The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year the Telegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.

There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.

Go read the full article for plenty more on the death of journalism at the Telegraph. In events since then:

• Further analysis of the Telegraph’s (lack of) coverage of HSBC.

• Political blog Guido Fawkes covers a leaked Telegraph memo to an advertiser, concluding with an admission of editorial content for sale:

I do think the Telegraph are unique in being able to offer a really integrated solution that genuinely works in editorial and paid for activity.

• More Telegraph writers speak out:

Daily Telegraph journalists have said they felt discouraged from writing uncomfortable stories about a range of advertisers and commercial partners.

These included the governments of Russia and China, a film distributor and RBS, BBC Newsnight has learned.

• The Guardian has (as always) the best coverage, Simon Jenkins sees this as a problem for journalism in general:

Newspapers are institutionalised hypocrisy. They excoriate yet they cringe. They speak truth to power and then sup at its table. They stick their moral noses in the air while their bottoms rest on festering heaps of deals, perks, bribes and ads, without which they would not exist. The most amazing thing is that this murky edifice has delivered Britain a remarkably robust and free-spirited press.

A commentator on the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne, broke cover this week with a searing indictment of his paper’s evident reluctance to cover the HSBC tax evasion saga.

There is no question standards are slipping. Page layouts are “bastardised” by wraparounds. Ill-shapen ads jut into editorial space, a once unthinkable concession to ad managers. I cringe when I see “sponsored content” supplements full of “advertorial”. I gather some titles now actively seek corporate sponsorship for columnists.

I have never come across anything as serious as Oborne’s accusations against the Telegraph and its “creative advertising solutions”. But financial necessity has become the mother of ethical invention, or at least corner-cutting. Any loss-making journal is at the mercy of its paymasters, be they the state, commerce, philanthropy or individuals.

And here in NZ we have The Herald with its dishonestly named “Brand Insight” pieces, part of the same death-spiral of the once proud journalistic tradition.

21 comments on “The Telegraph scandal”

  1. tricledrown 2

    Katherine Rich her role in undermining health initiatives.
    Her position on the Health Promotion Authority is a farce.
    New Zealand Medical Journal report that health initiatives such as reducing alcohol harm are being underming
    John Key and Steven Joyces payout to Media Works,Dirty Politics shows our media have completely sold out!

  2. There’s plenty of good stuff to read. It’s just mostly not written by journalists, but by academics bloggers, industry bloggers, etc. The traditional media are irrelevant when it comes to conveying truths. That’s why they have another “function”.

  3. Blue 4

    It’s not hard to see why journalism is dying. If you look at the commercial media, there is no incentive to produce quality journalism and no penalties for not doing so.

    All that is holding the rotten system together (by a thread) is the old traditions, the ideals that a few old timers still hold to.

    That’s all going out the window, though. With falling circulation and falling revenues, the media become ever more hungry for Gower-style sensationalism and serious stories become something to be slipped in guiltily between Kim Kardashian and an advertorial.

    • Sable 4.1

      I don’t know about that. The MSM in NZ have been poisoned since the 1970’s at least. A strong right leaning bias and a lot of pro business toadying even back then. The difference now with the internet makes it more obvious, which may in time prove to be a good thing. I know in the US social media are hammering the far right press which is in my opinion no bad thing. Its yet to reach NZ in earnest but its on its way.

  4. Sable 5

    I have little time for the Westernized MSM here or elsewhere. This is hardly a revelation and for me personally, simply underscores what I already know. The Western MSM are corrupt and not to be trusted.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 5.1

      Really? The ‘western’ media are ruled out. Does that mean other media isnt?

      • Sable 5.1.1

        Take a look at RT News. Surprisingly candid. There’s a little pro Russian bias but its nowhere near as bad as Western media outlets.

      • Sable 5.1.2

        Oh and of course there are sites like this one which seem to be mostly on the money….

  5. ghostwhowalksnz 7

    Ive noticed with NZ Herald they mix opinion and news on their mobile website. Different stories but in the same feed

    Thats all right as their columnists are well known.
    For some reason Rudman gets a big OPINION tag to his headlines that is not repeated often with other commentators.

  6. The Murphey 8

    The core problem is reflective of most aspects of personal and professional interface in which the actors play out their respective roles

    Truth is alive and can’t ever be extinguished but it can be subverted

    Before truth can become visible individuals first need to be honest to themselves

    This article is encouraging in that one individual has decided he can no longer lie to himself and has publically admitted he has been part of the conspiracy to subvert

    Perhaps this example can provide pause for thought about many who have spoken up against fraud and corruption inside their industry only to be whitewashed or personally vilified

    More high profile examples such as this are crucial and the curtain can be pulled down completely and the tide may still have the opportunity to turn on this world which has been constructed almost exclusively on lies

  7. McFlock 9

    Yes, it’s been growing for years as publishers become more desperate, and has reached a crescendo.

    10 or 15 years ago (excuse the vagueness – small towns can hold a grudge 🙂 ) a mate’s organisation was hitting a pretty good milestone (not big business or anything, a social thing). He called the local rag to see if they wanted to send a reporter to the event. The response was yes, but only if they dropped a couple of hundred on ads for the event.

    Sigh.

    • Ergo Robertina 9.1

      Are you suggesting the hundreds and hundreds of community-oriented stories published in NZ newspapers every week are likely to be paid content?
      My experience with the sector is that is not the case.
      You’ve muddled up a bit of dodginess at the margins with the pernicious trend of corporate native advertising, the blurring of ads and stories.
      The well established journalists who lent their credibility to so-called ”content partnerships” by heading the new divisions at the two big print chains should be ashamed of helping to normalise this insidious practice in NZ.

      • McFlock 9.1.1

        Corruption is corruption.
        Demands for bribery by the local rag is the small-town version of cloaking it in corporate-speak about synergies and native advertising.

        I’m not saying every local story is the result of an undeclared editorial conflict of interest, being it financial or simply that the reporter is part of that club so writes favourable reports on it, I’m merely saying that at least one event in my town at the time was denied coverage because they didn’t pay off (sorry, “purchase advertising from”) the local rag. Not much difference between that and running a “story” for a regular advertiser.

        • Ergo Robertina 9.1.1.1

          Yeah, there was never a golden age in journalism, it’s a bit of a myth.
          Thing is, some of that stuff was actually easier to get away with when newspapers dominated, so it’s not quite as simple as your building-to-a-crescendo narrative.
          There’s always been dodgy and cheeky ad managers.
          My experience after a dozen years in the industry (until recently), which included running a newsroom (as chief reporter), and filling in as CR in another, was that the wall between advertising and editorial was respected.
          There were grey areas, particularly in small papers, when a new business, say, demands a story (from the ad dept) before advertising, and maybe they would have got one, anyway, but it means the ad dept’s involved, and it’s kind of awkward.
          If an interviewee tried to tell me they’d advertised, I was quick to say they had the wrong dept.
          More often my awareness of the interface between church and state was after a run-in and an ad account was withdrawn. I was pleasantly surprised at the attitude of ad managers in those instances.
          It’s definitely more visceral in small papers; for one thing you actually know the ad people, talk to them at lunch etc, whereas in a big paper I barely knew their faces.
          It’s like the readers; in a small newsroom they can burst into the newsroom, or lecture you at social occasions. You are literally closer to your readers in a small community.
          Most people I dealt with were good (apart from PR people); it was a privilege to talk to them about their lives, milestones, etc.
          I think there is something new and unprecedented in these ghastly ”content partnerships”.

  8. esoteric pineapples 10

    Specific advertorials labelled as such aren’t really a threat to journalistic integrity. It’s the more insidious forms of mutual back massaging that are dangerous eg going to sources for comment because they are advertisers, doing “news stories” on subjects that are clearly not news because they feature an advertiser, simply not reporting news that is damaging to an advertiser and so on.

    Of course, it’s not just advertisers. It can just as easily be a government, police etc

  9. tc 11

    Crikey just completed a series on business journos going from watchdogs to lapdogs over time as they get frozen out if they don’t push the spin.

    I’m reminded of a colleague who had been a very well respected senior journo but after a break was looking to return to the workforce but had no interest in going back into the MSM.

    As they said too few employers and all with agendas that must be adhered to, time to move away from that caper and do something else as MSM doesn’t do journalism.

  10. JonL 12

    The Guardian the best? God help us then – it’s rapidly sliding down the propaganda/western leaders can do no wrong, hole. It’s a mere shadow of what it was, even 5 yrs ago.
    The Independent?

  11. Ergo Robertina 13

    Simon Jenkins’ piece, entitled,’ Yes Peter Oborne, ads hurt press freedom. But the alternative is worse’, ends on a bit of a triumphant note, though, once he’s outlined the problems.
    Mostly agree with this, although Jenkins is probably too complaisant (he seems to be one of the more conservative Guardian columnists):

    ”THERE is no question that the private sector is an insecure way of financing a free press that does not make money. But all other ways are worse. There are still as many daily newspapers published in Britain (nine) as there were 50 years ago, a continuous diversity available to no other western country. Online has not wiped out print. It has enhanced the penetration and prominence of both.
    In which case, we can only thank goodness for expediency. The only champion of a free press is not some regulator or commission or charter board. It is the free press itself. Plurality, rivalry, disclosure, exposure and sometimes fury are the best guardians. That is what we saw this week. One Oborne is worth 10 Levesons.”

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