Words for hire - was it ever thus? Photo by the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division/CC
Two weeks ago, openDemocracy broke a story which has major implications for press freedom, and democracy itself. Peter Oborne’s dramatic resignation from Britain’s Daily Telegraph, alleging the paper had suppressed negative stories about HBSC in order to protect advertising revenues, triggered a flood of other revelations. The Telegraph’s protestations about our story’s “inaccuracy and innuendo” have been widely debunked, and ridiculed.
Within hours of our story going live, Guido Fawkes had a leaked memo from Sony, saying the Telegraph offered the company “unique” “integrated… editorial and paid for” content. Meanwhile, Press Gazette, citing Telegraph insiders, was quick to report that "commercial power over editorial has been 'Telegraph's dirty little secret for some time". After the paper’s terse denials failed to kill off interest, pathetic stories attempting to connect staff suicides at Murdoch-owned newspapers, and to smear the Guardian over its links with Air New Zealand, started appearing in the Telegraph. The Twitter response was blistering: “Can anyone remember the last time a national newspaper imploded so spectacularly? Genuinely jawdropping to behold.”
But is commercial power over editorial just the Telegraph’s dirty little secret? Or do most journalists working today have something, however small, to add to this picture?
This much I know
I haven’t been working in journalism long – on and off, for about eight years. None of the places I’ve worked before openDemocracy could be characterised as vastly profitable media behemoths. But I have anecdotes, just as everyone does.
In the run up to the Copenhagen summit in 2009, I was tasked with editing a climate change supplement sponsored by Shell. Unsurprisingly, no stories about the environmental impacts of oil drilling in west Africa appeared in those pages. As a reviewer for a national newspaper, I was once asked to go easy on a novel because it had been written by a journalist currently employed by that paper. Nothing negative was published. Somewhere around the same time, I went on a press trip to Rwanda paid for by the Rwandan government, along with journalists from several leading global press outfits. I didn’t go easy on the regime – but nowhere in the finished product did my writeup say who had funded the trip. Neither did any of the other reports I read by those who went with me.
I can say some things in my defence. The novel was ok. In Rwanda, I visited opposition leaders and canvassed alternative viewpoints, much to the irritation of our facilitators. And no one told me I couldn’t cover Shell’s activities in Nigeria. Shell’s support for the supplement was clearly demarcated. All these things happened fairly early in my career, and I’d like to think I’d react differently now. None of these experiences reveal anything on the scale of what Peter Oborne has alleged and my purpose here is not to out those publications. Rather, to suggest that we need a new form of professional solidarity.
Dozens of the journalists I’ve spoken with since we broke the Oborne story have similar ‘little’ stories. Some are not so little, actually. Some involve merchandisers, others banks. Giving a hotel a nice write-up is patently not as serious as failing to properly investigate a giant bank. But isn’t it on the same spectrum? Oborne’s allegations, as he put it, “go to the heart of our democracy.” We need a press that acts transparently – which is why it’s time for us all to ‘fess up.
So over to you, dear colleagues. Let’s (quietly) start turning ourselves in, and see what happens. Tell your own stories in the comments below, redacting what you need to keep it legal, or to protect your job. You can comment anonymously, or you can email us here, but let’s make this forum public wherever possible. Peter Oborne accused the Telegraph of committing a "fraud on its readers." Shall we see what we can do as a profession to offer recompense?