The resignation of Peter Oborne as Chief Political Commentator of The Telegraph has been a catherine wheel of media controversy.
This time it is not scummy tabloid journalists in the dock – but the proprietors, namely shipping, entertainment and property tycoons David and Frederick Barclay – who entered the media industry in the Nineties. They now stand accused of putting commercial revenues ahead of the public interest – a serious charge for a well-respected newspaper with a long-standing reputation for high quality news reporting.
The Telegraph's editorial standard hit a high in May 2009 with a devastating expose of MPs expenses, and the newsroom continued to produce high quality journalism under the five year stewardship of Tony Gallagher, a Fleet Street veteran and bona fide “newsman.” Last year, Gallagher was suddenly fired. A new “Head of Content”-media executive Jason Seiken, was appointed in his place. The American's various initiatives were reportedly “met with incredulity” by newspaper staff.
The Telegraph began running paid for supplements from the Russian and Chinese governments, making nearly two million pounds per year on those contracts–but by return becoming complicit in propagandising two thoroughly nasty regimes.
The lead content of the newspaper increasingly resembles The Daily Mail – a practice Oborne mocked in his resignation by referencing a tawdry story about a three breasted woman. The Private Eye1 criticised the paper for advertising for editorial roles, where candidates were not expected to have any journalistic experience. Instead“Search Engine Optimisation”experts and digital marketing gurus are being hired.
Most notably though, Oborne exposed how the paper buried bad news about a key advertiser for fear of losing the account. For Oborne – it was an unforgivable crime, and his long resignation letter, published on openDemocracy, has plunged the newspaper into a credibility crisis which it may find difficult to extricate itself from.
The apparently crucial importance of HSBC as an advertising client – and the profoundly damaging impact it had on the papers editorial independence - is symptomatic of a long-standing malaise in the British newspaper industry: an increasing reliance on corporate advertising.
Advertising in itself is no bad thing for a newspaper – it pays the bills. The issue is who is advertising. The major dynamic of the mid to late twentieth century for newspaper business models was a shift from a mixture of big brand and classified advertising in the first half of the century, to the almost complete removal of classified advertising by the turn of the millenium.
Classified advertising was once so important it would have been completely alien to early twentieth century Fleet Street to print actual news on their front pages, using the space instead for classified ads. Ironically, The Telegraph was the first newspaper to do away with this practice - as early as 1939 pioneering the first“front page.”2
The Guardian and The Times would follow suit, but only twenty years later. Most newspapers continued carrying several pages of classified advertising elsewhere in the paper right until the late Eighties. In the Nineties, The Courier, a major regional newspaper in Scotland, was the last significant British title running only classifieds on the front page.
The high volume and prominence of classified advertising had a positive impact on the bottom line of the newspapers, but also prevented titles becoming too reliant on a few corporate advertisers. Instead revenues were diffused across thousands of small businesses and individuals. Coupled with still buoyant newstand sales the industry was in great shape to continue producing fine journalism, without risk of compromise in fear of advertisers.The advent of the internet – more specifically eBay, Gumtree and Google - changed the dynamic profoundly.
Small businesses were now instantly indexable online. Anyone could sell to an audience directly using online listing websites, with audiences vast in comparison to newspapers.
Newspaper classified advertising quickly became redundant. Proprietors instead had to rely on a small clutch of corporations who could still afford to advertise with the paper. Increasingly they became beholden to them. The effect was compounded by the increasing availability of free news online – meaning not only were newspapers missing out on classified advertising, their incomes were dented by plunging retail revenues. Corporate advertisers became even more important.
The HSBC example raised by Oborne is scandalous – but the effects of over-reliance on big brands can be far worse. An illustrative example comes with the purchase of The Sunday Times in 1983 by Ruper Murdoch's News International.
The move led directly to the firing of the brilliant war photographer Don McCullin after two decades at the paper – producing dramatic photographs for the Sunday Times Magazine supplement. McCullin, whose photo journalism has won countless awards, documented many gruesome conflicts in gruesome detail from Northern Ireland to Vietnam to Lebanon to Nigeria. His work was immensely important. It, like that produced by McCullin's equivalents in the United States, led in part to the rise of the Vietnam anti-war movement.
Why was McCullin fired? Simply because Murdoch was increasingly reliant on advertising fees for exotic holidays, fast cars and big houses. It was much harder to convince someone to spend £5,000 on a watch or handbag when Don McCullin was showing you his photographs of a dismembered child, injured in another pointless foreign war. The image we now get of war is highly sanitised, no doubt helpful to those belligerents in Washington or Westminster who seem intent on maintaining a state of near constant conflict. The public interest has been harmed by a desire to create an advertising-friendly environment. This model has been replicated across much of the British press.
So what to do? It seems unlikely that classified advertising will ever rise again. Nor will, or should, large companies be dissuaded from underwriting the costs of quality journalism.
What remains then are the retail sales. The public must be convinced again that journalism is worth paying for, indeed in light of banking scandals being ignored – or the horrors of war being obscured – it is necessary for a healthy society. So if you support what Oborne has done, and don't want your news to be filtered through a corporate balance sheet – you have the power.
Buy a newspaper – don't just read for free online. Renew those redundant magazine subscriptions, or buy them as presents for your family at Christmas.
Independent news websites (see Democracy Now, TruthOut or Mother Jones in the United States, or openDemocracy here in the UK) often produce some of the most compelling stories, and regularly ask for donations. Give as much as you can (you can donate to openDemocracy here).
Some journalists, particularly investigative, even run fund-raising campaigns on their own websites, or offer fans the option of buying them books or equipment from an Amazon wishlist. The more daring ask people to chip in to their trips abroad – trips which newspapers are increasingly reluctant to pay for, but are undoubtedly necessary for quality, worldly journalism to continue.
I'm a journalist, to declare my interest. What journalists do, when done well, is worth paying for. So anything more you can chip in to keep the trade free of corporate advertising isn't just a boon to mine and my freelance colleagues bank accounts, or the salaries of staffers in newsrooms – it's an ethical consumer choice which means the news agenda isn't going to be dictated by HSBC, Tesco or DeBeers. It's going to be dictated by you.
1Private Eye No.1374 "Street of Shame" 5-18th September 2014, p6
2Andrew Marr "My Trade, A Short History of British Journalism" p92, 2004, MacMillan
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