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What do the charges Peter Oborne levels against the Telegraph tell us about the economics of newspapers?

At some publications, content is not always immune from commercial pressures

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 18 February 2015 19:51 GMT

The most serious charge any business can face is that of defrauding its customers. Yet in one of the more startling events in the long story of national newspapers, this is the accusation made against the Daily Telegraph by Peter Oborne, its chief political commentator until he resigned in protest this week.

I have long admired Oborne. He combines excellent reporting, writing and polemical skills. He is also courageous. Oborne was referring to the Telegraph’s coverage of the revelations that the major international bank, HSBC, had systematically and repeatedly helped its customers to dodge tax. Or, more precisely, the Telegraph’s lack of coverage. In an article for the website OpenDemocracy, he stated that the Telegraph’s handling of the HSBC story “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”. The Telegraph has strongly denied this.

In other words, what Oborne is saying is that as HSBC is an important advertiser with the newspaper, management did not wish its editorial coverage to put this commercial relationship in doubt. Hence its decision in recent days to scarcely mention HSBC’s difficulties. There is a precedent here, he claims.

Apparently three years ago, the Telegraph’s news reporters had started to investigate the nature of some of the accounts held with HSBC in Jersey. They discovered a culture of tax-dodging similar to that recently revealed in HSBC’s Swiss arm. Six articles were published, and HSBC subsequently suspended its advertising with the paper. According to Oborne, reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. Thereafter, Oborne alleges, the newspaper discouraged any articles that were critical of HSBC. And, in due course, HSBC resumed is advertising.

When Oborne tackled the newspaper’s chief executive, Murdoch MacLennan, he writes that MacLennan agreed that advertising was allowed “to affect editorial”, but was unapologetic, saying that “it was not as bad as all that” and adding that there was a long history of this sort of thing at the Telegraph.

Not in my experience. I worked there as a financial journalist in the late 1960s and again in the early 1980s. As financial advertising is valuable, had there been any undue pressure, I would have known about it. It didn’t happen. In fact, national newspapers are in a better position to resist, with their substantial circulation revenues as well as their multiplicity of individual advertisers, than are weekly or specialist publications. Moreover, in commercial terms, the Telegraph is one of the stronger titles. It made a £55m operating profit in 2014.

So if Oborne is right, why would the newspaper have behaved in this way? The main reason is common to all. Newspapers across the world are suffering loss of circulation and of advertising revenues as a result of the development of digital media. The first response had been sharply to reduce costs, including editorial staffing. Then more attention has been paid to advertisers by devising special supplements and so-called advertorials, marked as such so as not to mislead readers. But the bigger investment has been in developing online editions.

The interesting new question that Oborne raises is whether the presence of online publishing within newspapers, with its different disciplines, is beginning to distort traditional editorial standards. In the case of the Telegraph, its excellent editor, Tony Gallagher, left in January 2014 and was replaced not by an editor at all – but by a “head of content”!

In fact “head of content” is now a common position within digital publishing. One description of the role states that it is to “think like a publisher/journalist, leading the development of content initiatives in all forms to drive new and current business… Ensuring all content is on-brand… Mapping out a content strategy that supports and extends marketing initiatives… Supervising writers, editors, content strategists; be an arbiter of best practices in grammar, messaging, writing, and style.” And how is success measured? By the “continual improvement of customer nurturing and retention through storytelling” – whatever that means.

It can easily be seen from the above that publishing a story that outlines HSBC’s encouragement of tax-dodging was never going to ensure that all content was “on-brand” nor would it “support and extend marketing initiatives”. Thus to the head of content, the HSBC story would have no appeal. Nor would such a person recognise a duty that editors willingly impose on themselves, to help preserve freedom by the constant scrutiny, reporting and analysis of power.

As Edmund Burke is reported to have said long ago: “There were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

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