Columnist Peter Oborne slams Telegraph management ethics
Veteran journalist quits paper, citing favourable treatment of beleaguered HSBC as a “fraud” on readers
Ethical lapses at the Telegraph newspaper group – spurred by closer ties between the sales and editorial teams – have stemmed from bad management, according to respected columnist Peter Oborne. In a hard-hitting announcement of his decision to quit the group, published on the Open Democracy website, Oborne accused Telegraph bosses of blocking negative coverage of HSBC because the bank is a big-spending advertising client.
Oborne sketched out a steady decline in quality for the group over the past five years, typified by “waves of sackings” that have impaired editorial judgment and impacted on journalistic integrity. In particular, he criticised the management decision to scrap the role of editor as a major factor behind the group’s predicament.
“In January 2014,” he wrote, “the editor, Tony Gallagher, was fired. He had been an excellent editor, well respected by staff. Mr Gallagher was replaced by an American called Jason Seiken, who took up a position called 'head of content'. In the 81 years between 1923 and 2004 the Telegraph had six editors, all of them towering figures: Arthur Watson, Colin Coote, Maurice Green, Bill Deedes, Max Hastings and Charles Moore. Since the Barclay Brothers purchased the paper 11 years ago there have been roughly six more, though it is hard to be certain since with the arrival of Mr Seiken the title of editor was abolished, then replaced by a head of content (Monday to Friday).”
Oborne noted that there had been three heads of content in 2014 alone, and that the digital shift had sacrificed a relationship nurtured with readers via the group’s physical papers for a “click culture”, in which web stats reigned supreme. That culture, he wrote, had led to numerous inaccuracies and – in one instance – an article that was known to be untrue even before it was published.
But even more concerning, he argued, was the damage to honest, objective reportage that arose from a gradual blurring of advertising and editorial boundaries. In one case, Oborne provided coverage of incidents last year in which Muslim HSBC clients were suddenly informed by the bank that their accounts had been closed. His article was delayed, and eventually dropped, with management citing at first a “legal problem” – and then “an issue with HSBC” that prevented The Daily Telegraph from carrying the report.
In another case, Oborne learned that a negative article on the bank by finance correspondent Harry Wilson was removed from the Telegraph website soon after publication. Then in November, a story on HSBC setting aside a $1 billion customer-compensation fund – at the same time it was under investigation for rigging currency markets – was relegated to just a few paragraphs in the business section. Other papers, however, had splashed the news.
That trend came to a head last week, Oborne wrote, when HSBC found itself at the centre of a major tax-evasion storm concerning its Swiss accounts division. The seasoned columnist pointed out that, while other papers had given the story pole position, “you needed a microscope” to find the Telegraph coverage.
In Oborne’s view, Telegraph readers “buy the newspaper because they feel that they can trust it. If advertising priorities are allowed to determine editorial judgments, how can readers continue to feel this trust? The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. 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.”
Recent Chartered Management Institute (CMI) report The MoralDNA of Performance stressed that safeguarding customer and stakeholder trust is “essential” to the operations of any organisation. “Loss of trust – and the need to rebuild it – was a theme in several of our [research] interviews,” the report noted, adding: “As Lindsay Tomlinson, a senior leader in the investment industry, puts it: ‘The fastest way to blow your business up is to lose trust and to behave badly’.” Tomlinson also said that the predominance of online media – so central to Oborne’s Telegraph attack – compels bosses to be more vigilant about how they convey their ethics. “The only way through the continuous firestorm of media content,” he said, “is to take your position, explain what you’re about and what your values are, and then live and demonstrate them all the time.”