Peter Oborne resigned Tuesday as the chief political commentator of the Telegraph. The resignation was a surprise for many observers of the media and that of politics, as Oborne, who also serves as Associate Editor of the Spectator magazine, was one of the most respected observers of British politics.
Oborne had intended to leave quietly, after informing Telegraph chief executive Murdoch MacLennan in December, according to his piece in Open Democracy, but the lack of coverage in the Telegraph of the investigation from the BBC’s Panorama programme, in conjunction with The Guardian, the French newspaper Le Monde and other organisations, which revealed that the Swiss banking arm of the HSBC bank helped customers avoid paying millions of pounds in tax, had changed circumstances.
A significant advertiser
HSBC had been a significant advertiser with the Telegraph, and Oborne said the paper had discouraged stories critical of the bank since 2013, when it suspended its advertising after the Telegraph had published an investigation into accounts held in Jersey, according to a report from The Guardian. The owners of the paper, the Barclay Brothers, reside in Sark, a neighbouring island of Jersey.
In an interview Wednesday with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Oborne called for an independent review into the relationship between editorial and advertising, and said the issue of not giving the HSBC scandal more coverage in the paper was one of the reasons he went public.
“As a journalist, it makes you feel sick,” Oborne said, adding he resigned from the paper as a matter of conscience because of editorial decisions made by Telegraph management.
Beyond the editorial call
Oborne added that paper should justify the editorial guidelines in surrounding its HSBC coverage, and said there were also questions for HSBC, as a piece in The Guardian the same day said the bank put its advertising with the paper on pause as discussions continued surrounding the release of the investigative material into HSBC’s Swiss banking arm.
Oborne said it was a similar move used against the Telegraph.
“It looks to an outsider very much as if HSBC is using advertising as a tool to supress free speech,” Oborne said.
HSBC declined Kettle’s request for comment. A spokesperson for The Guardian did not respond to Kettle’s request for comment regarding the advertising claim. A spokesperson for the Telegraph did not respond to Kettle’s request for comment on Oborne’s remarks.
Additionally, an investigation from the BBC’s Newsnight programme revealed concerns by some Telegraph journalists on publishing certain content and how commercial relations affected coverage, including a review of the film Despicable Me 2, which was given a 3 star rating instead of 2 due to commercial reasons, according to the investigation. Concerns were also raised on issues in Russia and China.
The culture [at the Telegraph] was the newsdesk decides what the story was, says fmr Telegraph legal editor @JoshuaRozenberg
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) February 18, 2015
The Telegraph’s moral dilemma
As questions surround the Telegraph and its coverage on HSBC and that of other issues, and what the future of the paper holds, the issue of ethics and morality in journalism come into play. Reached by email, Rachel Sharp, Lecturer in Journalism at Brunel University London, said the issues surrounding the Telegraph were moral.
“I think Peter Oborne has done the honourable thing,” Sharp said. “People often say the lines are blurred between editorial and advertising, but this is not the case. There is, in fact, a very distinct line between the two, and it should never be crossed.”
Sharp said it is the responsibility of the fourth estate to expose wrong doing and hold people to account for their actions.
“It isn’t anything to do with falling advertising revenue and falling newspaper sales, or the fact that newspapers wouldn’t survive without advertising – all of which is true,” Sharp said. “It is simply to do with being honest and trustworthy, and holding people to account. This is a time when we need more than ever for our readers to trust us.”
As events continue to unfold surrounding HSBC’s operations, and as they are debated at Westminster and elsewhere, questions are raised as to the Telegraph’s integrity, and whether the trust the Telegraph maintains can be kept. While the outcome is yet to be seen, Oborne wants answers.
“If their editorial judgment is unaffected by advertising, they must explain what editorial judgment it is to downplay negative stories about HSBC over the past two years,” Oborne said.
What do you think? Has the Telegraph’s integrity been compromised? Do you agree with Peter Oborne? Have your say in the comments section below.