Richard North, 18/02/2015  
 

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Peter Oborne has resigned from the Telegraph and, for obvious reasons, is unable to tell us why in the pages of his former newspaper. He thus resorts to Open Democracy to deliver the journalistic equivalent of an IED.

Circulation was falling fast when he joined the paper in September 2010, Oborne writes, and he suspects that this panicked the owners. Waves of sackings started, and the management made it plain that it believed the future of the British press was digital.

Later, he had lunch with Murdoch MacLennan, the paper's chief executive, at the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace. In conversation, he urged him not to take the newspaper itself for granted, pointing out that it still had a very healthy circulation of more than half a million. He added that Telegraph readers were loyal, that the paper was still very profitable and that the owners had no right to destroy it.

Yet the sackings continued. A little while later he met Mr MacLennan by chance in the queue of mourners outside Margaret Thatcher's funeral and once again urged him not to take Telegraph readers for granted. MacLennan replied: "You don’t know what you are fucking talking about".

Events at the Telegraph became more and more dismaying. In January 2014 the editor, Tony Gallagher, was fired and replaced by an American called Jason Seiken, appointed as "Head of Content".

In the 81 years between 1923 and 2004 the Telegraph had had six editors, but in the eleven years the Barclay Brothers have owned the paper, there have been roughly six more: it is hard to be certain since with the arrival of Mr Seiken the title of editor was abolished, then replaced by a Head of Content (Monday to Friday). There were three editors (or Heads of Content) in 2014 alone.

For the last twelve months things got much, much worse. The foreign desk has been decimated. Half of these have been sacked, and the chief sub, Richard Oliver, has left.

Solecisms, unthinkable until very recently, are now commonplace. Recently readers were introduced to someone called the Duke of Wessex. Prince Edward is the Earl of Wessex. There was a front page story about deer-hunting. It was actually about deer-stalking, a completely different activity. Obviously, says Oborne, the management doesn't care about nice distinctions like this. But the readers do, and the Telegraph took great care to get these things right until very recently.

The arrival of Mr Seiken coincided with the arrival of the click culture. Stories seemed no longer judged by their importance, accuracy or appeal to those who actually bought the paper. The more important measure appeared to be the number of online visits.

On 22 September, the Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. It was known to be false even before it was published - no doubt it was published in order to generate online traffic. This may have succeeded but such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper.

That collapse in standards has been only too evident but with it, says Oborne, came 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, he set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from the bank 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 him.

The paper said there would be no problem publishing on the website. When it didn't appear, he made enquiries. He was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When he asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When he pushed the point, an executive took him aside and said that "there is a bit of an issue" with HSBC. Eventually he gave up in despair. The article was published in openDemocracy.

When he researched the paper's coverage of HSBC, he learnt that Harry Wilson, the banking correspondent, 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 Oborne 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 story itself, however, is no longer available on the website. Wilson raised this issue publicly at the "town hall meeting" when Jason Seiken introduced himself to staff. He has since left the paper.

Then, on 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1 billion for customer compensation and an investigation into the rigging of currency markets. This story was the city splash in the Times, Guardian and Mail, making a page lead in the Independent. The Telegraph ran five paragraphs on page five of the business section.

The reporting of HSBC, Oborne says, is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year the Telegraph ran a long feature on Cunard's Queen Mary II 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. The Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard's liner as a major news story. But Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.

The paper's comment on last year's protests in Hong Kong was bizarre. One would have expected the Telegraph of all papers to have taken a keen interest and adopted a robust position. Yet (in sharp contrast to competitors like the Times) Oborne could not find a single leader on the subject.

At the start of December the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian all wrote powerful leaders on the refusal by the Chinese government to allow a committee of British MPs into Hong Kong. The Telegraph remained silent. Oborne could think of few subjects which angered and concerned Telegraph readers more.

On 15 September, the Telegraph published a commentary by the Chinese ambassador, just before the lucrative China Watch supplement. The headline of the ambassador's article was beyond parody: "Let's not allow Hong Kong to come between us".

On 17 September there was a four-page fashion pull-out in the middle of the news run, granted more coverage than the Scottish referendum. The Tesco false accounting story on 23 September was covered only in the business section. By contrast it was the splash, inside spread and leader in the Mail.

Not that the Telegraph was short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging £10 million to fight cancer, an inside peek at Tesco's £35 million jet and "Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years" were all deemed newsworthy.

There are other very troubling cases, many of them set out in Private Eye, which has been a major source of information for Telegraph journalists wanting to understand what was happening on their paper.

There was no avoiding the impression that something had gone awry with the Telegraph's news judgment. At this point, Oborne wrote a long letter to Murdoch MacLennan setting out all his concerns about the newspaper, and handing in his notice. He copied the letter to Telegraph chairman, Aidan Barclay.

He received a cursory response from Mr Barclay, expressing hopes that differences with Murdoch MacLennan could be resolved. He duly went to see the chief executive in mid-December. In a "civil" meeting, MacLennan agreed that advertising was allowed to affect editorial. But he was unapologetic, saying: "it was not as bad as all that". There was a long history of this sort of thing at the Telegraph, he admitted.

After the meeting, in a letter, the Telegraph accepted his resignation, but welcomed his offer to work out my six-month notice period. However in mid January he was told by a Telegraph executive that his weekly column would be discontinued and there had been a "parting of the ways".

Oborne said he would leave quietly. He had no desire to damage the newspaper. And that's how matters stood when, on Monday of last week, BBC Panorama ran its story about HSBC and its Swiss banking arm.

All newspapers realised at once that this was a major event. The FT splashed on it for two days in a row, while the Times and the Mail gave it solid coverage spread over several pages. You needed a microscope to find the Telegraph coverage. The reporting only looked up when the story turned into claims that there might be questions about the tax affairs of people connected to the Labour party.

After a lot of agony, Oborne came to the conclusion that he had a duty to make all this public. There were two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers – Oborne believes the newspaper is a significant part of Britain's civic architecture. It is the most important public voice of civilised, sceptical conservatism.

Telegraph readers, he says, are intelligent, sensible, well-informed people. They buy the newspaper because they feel that they can trust it. If advertising priorities are allowed to determine editorial judgments, how can readers continue to feel this trust?

The Telegraph's recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.

There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible. Imagine if the BBC - so often the object of Telegraph attack - had conducted itself in this way. The Telegraph would have been contemptuous. It would have insisted that heads should roll, and rightly so.

This brings Oborne to a second and even more important point that bears not just on the fate of one newspaper but on public life as a whole. A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. 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.

Last week, he made another discovery. Three years ago the Telegraph investigations team - the same which carried out the expenses investigation - received a tip off about accounts held with HSBC in Jersey.

Essentially this investigation was similar to the Panorama investigation into the Swiss banking arm of HSBC. After three months research the Telegraph resolved to publish. Six articles on this subject can now be found online, between 8 and 15 November 2012, although three are not available to view.

Thereafter no fresh reports appeared. Reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. Oborne has now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When he asked the Telegraph why the Barclay brothers had been involved, it declined to comment.

This, for Oborne, was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards, stories critical of HSBC had been discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, he has been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable.

HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told him, is "the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend". HSBC today refused to comment when he asked whether the bank's decision to stop advertising with the Telegraph had been connected in any way with the paper's investigation into the Jersey accounts.

Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately twelve months. Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. "He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories", said one former Telegraph journalist. "Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale".

This journalist continued: "An editorial operation that is clearly influenced by advertising is classic appeasement. Once a very powerful body know they can exert influence they know they can come back and threaten you. It totally changes the relationship you have with them. You know that even if you are robust you won’t be supported and will be undermined".

When he sent detailed questions to the Telegraph yesterday, about its connections with advertisers, the paper said: "Your questions are full of inaccuracies, and we do not therefore intend to respond to them". More generally, the paper said, "like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear. We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary".

The evidence, Oborne says, suggests otherwise, and the consequences of the Telegraph's recent soft coverage of HSBC may have been profound. Would Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have been much more energetic in its own recent investigations into wide-scale tax avoidance, had the Telegraph continued to hold HSBC to account after its 2012 investigation?

There are great issues here, he concludes. They go to the heart of our democracy, and can no longer be ignored. The coverage of HSBC in Britain's Daily Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.






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