Telegraph chief political journalist quits because paper lacked the stones to publish things that might upset their advertisers

Tim Murphy from the NZ Herald tweets about Peter Oborne?the chief political journalist of The Telegraph, who has resigned because the paper lacked the stones to publish things that might upset their advertisers ? for example the recent scandals around HSBC bank.

This is?a big story over there at the moment.

Circulation was falling fast when I joined the paper in September 2010, and I suspect this panicked the owners. Waves of sackings started, and the management made it plain that it believed the future of the British press to be digital. Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive, invited me to lunch at the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace, where Telegraph executives like to do their business. I 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. I added that our readers were loyal, that the paper was still very profitable and that the owners had no right to destroy it.

The sackings continued. A little while later I 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. He replied: ?You don?t know what you are fucking talking about.?

Ahhh the arrogance of mainstream media editors and executives.

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 the management don?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 Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. One despairing executive told me that it was known this was false even before the story was published. I have no doubt it was published in order to generate online traffic, at which it may have succeeded. I am not saying that online traffic is unimportant, but over the long term, however, such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper.

Herald bombs?

What he outlines next is undoubtedly happening now inside major media newsrooms in NZ.

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 to openDemocracy. 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. Mr Wilson?s contemporaneous tweets referring to the story can be found here. The story itself, however, is no longer available on the website, as anybody trying to follow through the link can discover. Mr Wilson rather bravely 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. I inspected the Telegraph coverage. It generated five paragraphs in total on page 5 of the business section.

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.

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) I 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. I can think of few subjects which anger and concern 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 is short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging ?10m to fight cancer, an inside peak at Tesco?s ?35m jet and ?Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years? were all deemed newsworthy.

Have you ever seen a bad article about Bayleys or Barfoot & Thompson in the NZ Herald? Even when one of their agents gets pinged they just use his name and never the agency.

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 is happening on their paper. There was no avoiding the impression that something had gone awry with the Telegraph?s news judgment. At this point I wrote a long letter to Murdoch MacLennan setting out all my concerns about the newspaper, and handing in my notice. I copied this letter to the Telegraph chairman, Aidan Barclay.

I received a cursory response from Mr Barclay. He wrote that he hoped I could resolve my differences with Murdoch MacLennan. I duly went to see the chief executive in mid-December. He was civil, served me tea and asked me to take off my jacket. He said that I was a valued writer, and said that he wanted me to stay.

I expressed all of my concerns about the direction of the paper. I told him that I was not leaving to join another paper. I was resigning as a matter of conscience. Mr 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.

I have since consulted Charles Moore, the last editor of the Telegraph before the Barclays bought the paper in 2004. Mr Moore confessed that the published accounts of Hollinger Inc, then the holding company for the Telegraph, did not receive the scrutiny they deserved. But no newspaper in history has ever given an unfavourable gloss on its owner?s accounts. Beyond that, Mr Moore told me, there had been no advertising influence on the paper?s news coverage.

After my meeting with Mr MacLennan I received a letter from the Telegraph saying that the paper had accepted my letter of resignation, but welcomed my offer to work out my six-month notice period. However in mid January I was asked to meet a Telegraph executive, this time over tea at the Goring Hotel. He told me that my weekly column would be discontinued and there had been a ?parting of the ways?.

He stressed, however, that the Telegraph would continue to honour my contract until it ran out in May. For my part I said that I would leave quietly. I had no desire to damage the newspaper. For all its problems it continues to employ a large number of very fine writers. They have mortgages and families. They are doing a fine job in very trying circumstances. I prepared myself mentally for the alluring prospect of several months paid gardening leave.

An honourable man.

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 civilised, 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.

It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here. The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can?t be conveyed across the mainstream media. The criminality of News International newspapers during the phone hacking years was a particularly grotesque example of this wholly malign phenomenon. All the newspaper groups, bar the magnificent exception of the Guardian, maintained a culture of omerta around phone-hacking, even if (like the Telegraph) they had not themselves been involved. One of the consequences of this conspiracy of silence was the appointment of Andy Coulson, who has since been jailed and now faces further charges of perjury, as director of communications in 10 Downing Street.

I post all this because of the incredible similarities of what has happened and is happening in New Zealand. What, for example, would the public say if they knew that several journalists collaborated to create a Twitter account to disseminate hacked documents so they could then say were in the public domain and proceed to write stories about them.

Then there is the ongoing issue with the continuation of Brian Gaynor’s column while Milford Asset manipulation is under investigation by?the?FMA…is it a coincidence that the NZ Herald carries advertising as well from Milford Asset Management and is Brian Gaynor’s column part of that deal.

What about the moonlighting of other columnists and their undisclosed income sources. One Fairfax journalist is creaming it from Auckland Council and a senior Herald columnist seems to have astonishing annual income aside from the two columns a week currently produced at the usual going rate for freelance submissions.

The behaviour and actions of the mainstream media have led to the collapse in trust in them. They have sold out, prostituted themselves and manipulated news in increasingly outrageous ways.

The most ardent and sanctimonious of journalists are often the most corrupted.

New Zealand is a small place eventually their behaviour will collapse in on themselves.

 

– Order Order

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