Ex-chief political commentator launches blistering attack on paper, saying it put bank’s interests before readers to save ad contract
Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, has resigned from the paper, accusing it of a “fraud on its readers” over its coverage of HSBC.
In a blistering attack on the paper’s management and owners, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, Oborne claimed the paper deliberately suppressed stories about the banking group in order to keep its valuable advertising account.
He said it was a “most sinister development” at the paper, where he claimed the traditional distinction between the advertising and editorial department had collapsed.
Oborne said he had told Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the paper’s parent company the Telegraph Media Group, that he was resigning last December.
He said he had intended to leave quietly but had a “duty to make all this public” following the Telegraph’s coverage of last week’s revelations about HSBC’s Swiss banking arm, which helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets, doling out bundles of untraceable cash and advising clients on how to circumvent domestic tax authorities.
Oborne said readers “needed a microscope to find” the paper’s reporting of the HSBC scandal, which received many pages of coverage in other UK national titles including the Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mail and Times.
“The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers,” Oborne said in an article on the Open Democracy website, published on Tuesday.
“It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible.
“If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”
More from Mr. Osborne on Our Kingdom:
Urgent questions to answer
Last week I made another discovery. Three years ago the Telegraphinvestigations team—the same lot who carried out the superb MPs’ expenses investigation—received a tip off about accounts held with HSBC in Jersey. Essentially this investigation was similar to the Panorama investigation into the Swiss banking arm of HSBC. After three months research the Telegraphresolved to publish. Six articles on this subject can now be found online, between 8 and 15 November 2012, although three are not available to view.
Thereafter no fresh reports appeared. Reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. I have now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When I asked theTelegraph why the Barclay brothers were involved, it declined to comment.
This was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”. HSBC today refused to comment when I asked whether the bank’s decision to stop advertising with theTelegraph was connected in any way with the paper’s investigation into the Jersey accounts.
Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately 12 months. Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. “He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,” says one former Telegraph journalist. “Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.
“An editorial operation that is clearly influenced by advertising is classic appeasement. Once a very powerful body know they can exert influence they know they can come back and threaten you. It totally changes the relationship you have with them. You know that even if you are robust you won’t be supported and will be undermined.”
When I sent detailed questions to the Telegraph this afternoon about its connections with advertisers, the paper gave the following response. “Your questions are full of inaccuracies, and we do not therefore intend to respond to them. More generally, like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear. We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.”
The evidence suggests otherwise, and the consequences of the Telegraph’srecent soft coverage of HSBC may have been profound. Would Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have been much more energetic in its own recent investigations into wide-scale tax avoidance, had the Telegraph continued to hold HSBC to account after its 2012 investigation? There are great issues here. They go to the heart of our democracy, and can no longer be ignored.