Fallout from the Oborne files

More evidence has emerged of corporate influence at the Telegraph.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
19 February 2015

C4, advertising their Oborne coverage

On Tuesday Peter Oborne announced on openDemocracy that he had resigned as Chief Political Commentator of the biggest broadsheet in the UK. I think it's fair to say his piece made a bit of a splash. The response has ranged from pernickety to profound, interesting to inane.

The Telegraph's short statement on the matter declared the article to be riddled with “inaccuracy and innuendo”. They also, as a few smart-Alecs on Twitter pointed out, used the word “refute” when they meant "rebut" or “reject”, implying at the very least that Oborne's complaints about slippage in their precise use of the English language are a fair cop.

As I pointed out yesterday, we carefully fact-checked the piece, and absolutely stand by it. The Telegraph might be trying to throw sand in people's eyes with general accusations of inaccuracy, but they have yet to point to any single specific claim in the piece which is untrue. Also, since we published, a few other people have got to work on looking into the story.

On the significant allegation that the Telegraph did devote much less coverage to HSBC than their main competitors, the data experts at Kings College London have done the number crunching. Their conclusion?

“These figures indicate that Peter Oborne’s criticisms of the Telegraph’s coverage of the scandal appear to be well founded. The Telegraph devoted far fewer articles to the subject than comparable UK news sources. Those articles that it did publish contained little or no investigation into the allegations levelled at HSBC, instead framing the issue as a matter of embarrassment or conflict among politicians, political parties, or public bodies.”

Another allegation was that a Telegraph story about HSBC was deleted in January 2014. Jim Waterson and the clever folks over at Buzzfeed have managed to find the article down the back of a sofa, and have reprinted it, in full.

Perhaps most importantly, Oborne's former colleagues seem to corroborate his claims. On the Six O'Clock News on Wednesday night (at 18:03), David Sillato, BBC Media Correspondent said: “we've spoken today to a number of former executives, senior journalists who've worked at the Telegraph and they've echoed much of what Peter Oborne has said today.”

Likewise, Chris Cooke, has been doing his own digging for BBC Newsnight: "We've spoken to more than a dozen current and recent writers, editors and reporters from the Daily Telegraph. They all say that while they may quibble with a fact or two in Peter Oborne's piece, it is 99 per cent right."

Meanwhile, the Press Gazette has been speaking to a couple of former Telegraph executives too. The headline is a pretty good summary of the piece: Peter Oborne 'spot on', say sources: Commercial power over editorial has been 'Telegraph's dirty little secret for some time'. The piece has some fresh and explosive revelations all of its own:

  • - “One example of alleged commercial pressure brought to bear on editorial involved a story published on 10 December 2013 about Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Nathan Bostock quitting the bank after ten weeks in the job.”

  • - “The source said that the division between commercial and editorial on the paper had "completely broken down" and that it was now normal for commercial staff to attend news conference and then talk to reporters directly about stories, emphasising which companies are major advertisers.”

  • - “A former senior executive involved in daily production of The Daily Telegraph told The Times: "If there was a story related to a big Telegraph advertiser and something that was deemed critical was going to appear, subsequently you'd get a call of irritation from someone very senior saying: 'We've heard that you might be running a story about Tesco... Did you know that they spend X amount with us advertising each year?

"'And can you take extra care over the story? And do we really have to run the story? And do we have to run it this way?'"

  • - “Press Gazette has been told of pressure over stories about all of the big-four UK high street banks as well as major supermarkets.”

Guido Fawkes has a leaked memo from Sony, saying the Telegraph offered the company“unique” “integrated… editorial and paid for” content. The memo says “I do think the Telegraph are unique in being able to offer a really integrated solution that genuinely works in editorial and paid for activity.” The promotion was for the film “Fury” which, you'll be astonished to hear, got a rave review from the paper.

Now, perhaps the question as to whether the opinions of the Telegraph's film critics are tradable commodities doesn't drive a spike too deep into the heart of our democracy. But the revelation does leave the Telegraph with some questions to answer – was the deal really unique? Or might a similar arrangement be responsible for the bizarre series of puff pieces about Tesco, while every other serious paper devoted space to their accounting scandal? Who else has received “integrated editorial and paid for” content? What scandals that the Telegraph would otherwise be covering do we not know about as a result?

All of the above is just what's been published so far. Judging from hushed conversations and comments at the back end of the internet, there is much more to come. Some have been shocked by all of this. Others, old-timers, claim not to be surprised at all. But either way, the story is a reminder of something vital: the grip of corporate power is strengthening around the neck of our democracy. We must find other ways to fund journalism.

Update: more BBC revelations:

Christopher Cook has more revelations over on the BBC website. They say that "More than a dozen current and recent Telegraph journalists have confirmed Mr Oborne's concerns that the newspaper has a particular problem maintaining the "Chinese walls" that most newspapers keep between their advertising departments and the work of their journalists." And their piece includes more astonishing claims. These include allegations that:

- The governments of both Russia and China both bought editorial influence at the paper.

- The review for children's film Despicable Me 2 was bumped up from a two-star rating to three stars for commercial reasons.

- "in December 2013, Jason Seiken, a senior editorial executive, responded to a story that had been published about turmoil within RBS by pointedly telling financial reporters that the bank was an important commercial partner for the newspaper."

- "In late 2012, it ran two big stories on HSBC's Jersey subsidiary. In the discussions afterwards, HSBC sought the confidential data used by the newspaper. The Telegraph refused. Aidan Barclay, the chair of the Telegraph, subsequently asked for a copy of the confidential data to be passed from the Telegraph's lawyer to his own personal lawyer. Telegraph journalists prepared a redacted version of the information so they could give it to him without fear that their source might be identified from it."

With all that in mind, we've launched an appeal. We can't allow public debate to be caged by the interests of advertisers. Contribute to openDemocracy today, and help set journalism free.

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