Peter Oborne’s resignation statement as chief political commentator of the Telegraph has touched a nerve for a whole number of reasons.
First, simply because of its rarity. Very few journalists are confident enough to speak out against their employers or to refuse to write stories that they don’t agree with. Richard Peppiatt’s resignation from the Daily Star on the basis of its sexist and anti-Muslim coverage was an extremely unusual case of a journalist publicly outing his bosses. Oborne’s resignation, as the blogger Guido Faukes sniped, was a ‘great career move’; in truth, the vast majority of journalists don’t have Oborne’s reputation and contacts and would find it even more difficult to find work elsewhere. Newsrooms may claim to be at the forefront of protecting free speech but they don’t seem to be that comfortable with internal dissent or outright criticism.
Second, because of what it tells us about the direction in which ‘prestige’ journalism is heading. Oborne talks about the ‘decimation’ of the Telegraph’s newsroom, the decline in fact-checking and the obsessive pursuit of online traffic that pushes titles towards agendas like the Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’ and away from well resourced public interest journalism. Similar claims are now regularly made about the increasingly bland, establishment-obsessed coverage of BBC News.
Third, because it reveals a lot about the networks of power and influence that dominate the everyday business of news. The firm divide between editorial and advertising that has long been part of the folklore of quality journalism is under huge pressure from a variety of sources. This can take the form either of ‘branded content’ (from the Guardian’s partnership with Unilever, to ‘Virtue’, the in-house agency component of Vice) which has become increasingly pervasive as traditional publishers in particular seek to make up for some of the revenue that has migrated to online advertisers. Or it can assume an even more blatant kind of interference.
Oborne claims that a major news story – HSBC’s encouragement of tax evasion schemes – was sacrificed in order not to jeopardize the Telegraph’s advertising contract with the bank. Stories were run and then disappeared or not commissioned at all simply because of commercial considerations that compromise the fundamental purpose of independent journalism. ‘There is a purpose to journalism’, writes Oborne, ‘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.’
Of course, news and the media industry more generally have always been enterprises controlled by ‘big corporations’ and ‘rich men’, whether offshore or online. Presumably, copies of Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent will be flying off the shelves today following their exposé, more than 25 years ago, of the role of advertising in supporting a ‘propaganda model’ whereby advertisers are more likely to support output that conforms to their own ideological preferences – and, at times, more than willing to withdraw their support from outlets they consider to be hostile, which is precisely what seems to have happened with HSBC’s ‘pausing’ of their relationship with the Guardian following its coverage of the bank’s involvement in tax evasion. Many people will be utterly unsurprised by the revelation of such intimate links between large media groups and their corporate sponsors but Oborne’s statement makes it clear just how open Telegraph bosses are about this state of affairs. According to Oborne, Telegraph chief executive Murdoch 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.’ This is not quite what is taught in traditional journalism courses nor what is expressed in the usual editorials praising this country’s long tradition of a free press.
The final reason why Oborne’s resignation has been so widely acclaimed is because it gives voice to an increasingly widespread view that ordinary people are being lied to by people with power (which, ironically, is why we need fearless journalists in the first place: to alert us to this fact). A Eurobarometer poll carried out in 2013, two years after the phone hacking crisis exploded, found that a mere 19% of the UK population ‘tend to trust’ the press – the lowest of the 33 countries polled. A more recent survey of world public opinion listed the UK as 19th out of 27 countries in terms of the population’s trust in key public institutions. There is a crisis of legitimacy in traditional sources of authority – including government, media, police and mainstream political parties – and very little confidence in the ability of these institutions to correct their own behaviour. In relation to press regulation, this means that the public is hardly likely to be impressed by a new regulator, IPSO, that is funded and controlled by groups like the Mail, News UK and, not least, the Telegraph.
Peter Oborne’s statement provides us with a clear warning that corporate influence, if unchecked, represents a systematic attack on free speech. His actions remind us that we shouldn’t allow news organizations to ‘mark their own homework’ and that we need mechanisms to protect ethical practices in newsrooms. But this is far more than an issue just about the behaviour of individual journalists and individual proprietors. We need urgently to change the patterns of media ownership in this country – to introduce limits to the amount of the media owned by a single voice and to redistribute income to voices which are otherwise being silenced – if we are to challenge the corrupt relationship between journalism and elite power. Meanwhile, which of the parties will be brave enough to include a commitment to media ownership reform in their forthcoming election manifestos and, if they don’t, is it simply due to their fear, as Oborne puts it, of the ‘shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media’?
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