The Daily Telegraph's chief political commentator Peter Oborne has resigned from the British newspaper, leaving behind a blistering attack on his former employer in a post on the Open Democracy website.
In it, Oborne says the newspaper's coverage (or lack of it) on HSBC is a "fraud on readers," accusing The Daily Telegraph of refusing to cover major disparaging stories about the bank because it is a key advertiser.
Oborne begins his post the paper's "collapse in standards," as it experienced a sharp decline in print circulation, followed by "waves of sackings." The situation became "more and more dismaying" in 2014 when much-loved editor Tony Gallagher was sacked and replaced with Jason Seiken, who took up a role as head of content. With the arrival of Seiken came the arrival of a "click culture," which Oborne believes inflicted "incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper."
The damage bled into the critically important divide between the print and editorial department. "There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed," Oborne wrote.
Oborne first noticed an issue when he began work on a story about HSBC sending letters to well-known British Muslims informing them their accounts had been closed, with no reason given. Oborne says he submitted his story for publication on The Telegraph's website, but it was not published. He made some inquiries.
"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'," Oborne writes.
These types of instances were common, according to Oborne. Another story about HSBC, this article written by former Telegraph banking correspondent Harry Wilson, about a "black hole" in HSBC's accounts was published, then swiftly removed from the Telegraph's website, Oborne says. You can still find Wilson's tweet promoting the story, but the link is no longer accessible. HSBC declined to comment on the reasons the article was removed, when contacted by Oborne.
Oborne also points to the minimal, "soft" coverage The Telegraph has given to HSBC stories that have recently dominated the front pages, such as the blow to the bank's profits as it set aside more than £1 billion for customer compensation and an investigation into rigging the currency markets, and more recently the news about its Swiss banking arm allegedly being involved in a wide scale tax evasion scheme.
Beyond HSBC, Oborne also suggests The Telegraph has run favorable pieces about key advertisers such as cruise liner company Cunards and Tesco. Meanwhile, Oborne says there was a correlation between the paper's minimal coverage on last year's protest in Hong Kong, and the later publication of its China Watch supplement (which would have drawn in considerable amounts of advertising revenue.)
Oborne took his concerns to Telegraph Media Group CEO Murdoch MacLennan and chairman Aidan Barclay by writing a letter, alongside his resignation notice. Oborne received a "cursory" response from Barclay, hoping he would reconsider. But he met with MacLennan who was "unapologetic" saying the relationship between advertising and editorial was "not as bad as all that." Worryingly, MacLennan actually agreed that advertising was allowed to affect editorial and added that there was "a long history of this sort of thing at The Telegraph," Oborne recounts.
In a damaging attack on The Telegraph and its owners, Oborne lays out his two main reasons for resigning and for making his concerns public:"After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public. There are two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers. It might sound a pompous thing to say, but I believe the newspaper is a significant part of Britain’s civic architecture. It is the most important public voice of civilized, sceptical conservatism.
Telegraph readers 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 me 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, Oborne said he made an even more alarming discovery: He says that Telegraph reporters were ordered to "destroy all emails, reports and documents" related to an investigation into accounts held with HSBC in Jersey (a story along similar lines to the recent scandal at its Swiss banking arm.)
It gets worse:
"I have now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When I asked the Telegraph why the Barclay brothers were involved, it declined to comment.
This was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”. HSBC today refused to comment when I asked whether the bank's decision to stop advertising with the Telegraph was 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 12 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,” says 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.
“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.”"
A Telegraph Media Group spokeswoman gave Business Insider this statement:
"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."
“It is a matter of huge regret that Peter Oborne, for nearly five years a contributor to the Telegraph, should have launched such an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo, on his own paper.”
It appears HSBC also has a wavering advertising relationship with other UK newspapers. The Guardian reports: "Before publication in the Guardian, and many other outlets including the BBC, of the HSBC [Swiss banking]revelations, and while negotiations were continuing over the material, the bank put its advertising with the Guardian’s parent company, Guardian News & Media, 'on pause'."
Business Insider has contacted HSBC for comment and will update this article once a response has been received.
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