E-i-C Blog

Bad business


Peter Oborne's resignation from the Daily Telegraph, revealed on openDemocracy, asks fundamental questions about corporate influence over the media.


Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
17 February 2015

UKUncut protest, Demotix

openDemocracy has broken the news that Peter Oborne, the influential chief political commentator at Britain’s Daily Telegraph, has resigned. He does so with sadness and gives his reasons for doing so here. He believes the UK’s leading conservative newspaper has ignored or downplayed stories damaging to HSBC, and that it is letting advertising priorities shape some of its editorial judgements.

These allegations could not be more serious, coming on the back of last week’s revelations uncovered by the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists along with the Guardian, Le Monde and CBS’s 60 Minutes, that HSBC – ‘the world’s local bank’ – used its private Swiss arm to help hundreds of wealthy clients dodge taxes on an immense scale, a scandal which is now having reverberations across the world.

The story, now being set out day-by-day by the Guardian in its HSBC Files, is explosive yet familiar. A leaked list of wealthy, powerful individuals – including major Conservative party donors in Britain – gets ignored for years by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the body that is supposed to investigate tax evasion. When the story finally comes to light, there are hasty promises from the bank that lessons have been learned, and vows to ‘get tough’ from Tory and Labour front benchers, in between desperate rounds of political point scoring. Meanwhile, no one gets any closer to understanding how this abuse of the system could have been ignored for so long, nor how it will be prevented from happening again.

Now, in Peter Oborne’s public resignation on openDemocracy, we glimpse partial answers to some of these questions. How did it take so many years for the scandal at HSBC’s Swiss outfit to to be revealed? Well, when the executives of at least one major newspaper believe that HSBC is "the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend," is it surprising that negative coverage of that bank doesn’t top their news agenda? (It’s telling that the Guardian, backed by the Scott Trust, was the UK paper to finally break the HSBC story.) How to prevent this happening again; where to even start? I’ll come to that in a moment.

The first, bleak reality we have to face is that this cannot be an example unique to the Telegraph. Nor that this self-censorship is confined to revelations about tax dodging, or about the behaviour of banks. That would be bad enough, but this has a wider chilling effect across the world. In December openDemocracy published this story by Oborne after the Telegraph failed to, which asked why HSBC had closed the bank accounts of a number of prominent Muslims. Some of those cut off were involved in charity relief efforts for Gaza, and the trail appears to lead back to pressure from the United States authorities. After we published, the story was picked up on the BBC and the Guardian – but only because a tiny outfit like ours was initially prepared to do what a huge newspaper with millions of readers wasn't. If newspapers' ‘business model’ means that stories like this get suppressed, the world is in serious trouble.

Freedom of the press

Many of those against UK press regulation in the wake of phone-hacking argued that it would limit press freedom. There was a collective failure to imagine the reverse: that it might be an opportunity to free the press. What if ‘more regulation’ meant stricter media ownership limits, curtailing the power of barons like Rupert Murdoch to set the news agenda in hundreds of outlets across the globe? What if it meant that newspapers had to publish a public list of all their major advertising relationships? What if it gave readers more information, choices and power?

For democracy to function, the media has to hold the powerful to account. Here at openDemocracy, we don’t shy away from this job. We take on G4S, the United States government and the ‘world’s local bank’. Of course, we’re not alone in doing so. But because we’re a not-for-profit, corporations don’t get a say in how we do it.

We also challenge ourselves not just to expose problems, but to start the process of imagining solutions – a challenge which we encourage you, our readers, to take up.

If you agree with us that readers should have more information, choices and power, share this story widely and support our work here.

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