Last April, I wrote in this column about a disturbing trend in some newspapers of running paid-for advertisements that look almost indistinguishable – if distinguishable at all – from editorial. It was with great regret that I had to report that The Daily Telegraph was one of the main offenders.
Alas, my piece seems not to have made any difference. Far from it. If anything, the Telegraph has been running more advertisements dressed up as editorial, not fewer. Last November the paper was censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for running an advertorial about Flora margarine which was not clearly enough identified as a piece of advertising.
Such pieces are difficult to identify because they are commonly written by the paper's journalists, are laid out as normal articles, and provide only small typographical clues that they are sponsored by advertisers. For example, on 13 January the Telegraph carried a large feature about the film Coriolanus on its arts pages written by Zoe Dare Hall. The piece, incorporating an interview with actor Dragan Micanovic, was highly favourable. Only a small strap-line above the article saying, "special feature in association with Lionsgate [the film company]" indicated that it was paid-for advertising.
If I, as a professional journalist, might have skimmed this piece unaware that it was advertorial, it seems likely that many people could have read it in a similar state of ignorance. Another recent Telegraph example, taking up a page on 30 November, was about business opportunities in the north-west. The main article, written by one of the paper's business journalists, Andrew Cave, was strongly upbeat and quoted the regional director of HSBC. The only clue that the page was sponsored by the bank is the strapline: "HSBC business thinking."
There are other similar Telegraph examples involving Boots, Bupa, and the online loyalty rewards scheme company Avios, which probably only eagle-eyed readers would have identified as advertorial. I certainly don't want to suggest that it is the only newspaper running advertorial that can be mistaken for editorial. On 6 November The Observer carried three pages about the virtues of good eating. The only evidence that these pieces were sponsored by the British Heart Foundation was a tiny logo at the bottom-right of every page.
Meanwhile, The Times, has advertised for a "commercial editor" who will act as a "collaborative conduit between editorial and commercial" and who will "work with an internal team of commercial writers, advertorial writers, sub-editors and designers". That sounds to me like someone who may be asked to present advertorial that looks like editorial.
I appreciate that times are very tough. But newspapers must nonetheless maintain the traditional distinction between editorial and advertising. Most of them, including The Independent, run advertorial that bears some resemblance to editorial. It is a question of degree. Newspapers will forfeit trust and lose credibility if readers begin to suspect them of covertly pushing a commercial agenda. Making paid-for advertorials look indistinguishable from editorial, and using recognised staff writers to write them, is an alarming development.
Of course I don't imagine that Tony Gallagher, editor of the Telegraph, and a journalist devoted to hard news, could be remotely in favour of it. Nor can I think that Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, and someone renown for his integrity, is more than vaguely aware of what is going on. As for the newspaper's proprietors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, I am absolutely certain that they would disapprove if they knew.
The Daily Telegraph is in the happy position of being one of the few newspapers making money. It is therefore in a good position to put a stop to a practice which it has taken further than any other title.
Huhne and Wintour: the long-time connection
Twice in recent months my old friend Chris Huhne has been accused of leaking unhelpful stories to The Guardian about Cabinet colleagues. On both occasions they appeared under the byline of the paper's political editor, Patrick Wintour, an even older friend of Mr Huhne's.
On 7 October 2011 Mr Wintour wrote a story in The Guardian, pointing out that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, had lifted an anecdote about a cat from a speech by Nigel Farage. Mr Huhne admitted to being the source. Last Monday, Mr Wintour had a story about Michael Gove's proposal for a royal yacht. No 10 fingered Mr Huhne as being behind the leak, though he has denied the accusation.
Mr Huhne and Mr Wintour are certainly close. They were contemporaries at Westminster School and at Oxford, where both worked on Isis magazine. However, I should correct the Daily Mail's estimable Ephraim Hardcastle column, which maintained last week that Mr Huhne and Mr Wintour were co-editors of Isis. Mr Huhne's co-editor was Stephen Glover.