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.