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Peter Oborne has performed a great public service today

17 February 2015

9:48 PM

17 February 2015

9:48 PM

Well, this is awkward. Peter Oborne is a friend and The Spectator shares a proprietor with The Daily Telegraph. So there is a danger that anything written in this space will seem craven or kowtowing. Nevertheless, Peter, late of this parish and now late of the Telegraph too, has performed a public service today by resigning his post as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator. He is a man of great conviction and deep principle. Often mistaken, perhaps, but always magnificently worthwhile.

His suggestion that the Telegraph has, shall we say, a rather too cosy relationship with some of its advertisers – and especially with HSBC – is not the kind of allegation made without good cause or serious consideration. Nor is he alone in wondering if the good ship Telegraph sails as serenely as once it did. Many journalists who might once have been reckoned Telegraph types to their toenails have left the paper in recent years, often involuntarily.

Newspapers must, for sure, endeavour to turn a profit. But not at any cost. There is always a risk that pursuing profit at the expense of all else leads to disaster. In the Telegraph’s case their profits might now be reckoned Pyrrhic. Useful, certainly, but extracted at too high a price and worth rather less than a million pound a year advertising account.

The newspaper business has always been unusual. For a long time it sold readers to advertisers just as much as it sold news to readers. (Youngsters may be astonished to learn that once upon a time you needed to buy a newspaper if you wanted to buy a second-hand car or rent a flat.) And every journalist has had the experience of being reminded by someone on the advertising side of the ledger that it’s the commercial team who “pay your wages”. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. No-one has ever purchased a newspaper to discover the display adverts inside.


Still, this required everyone to know their place. Some parts of the business – the travel pages, for instance – have always been, shall we say, distorted by the provision of journalistic freebies. Celebrity interviews in the colour supplements also long since lost most of their journalistic value, being little more than mildly-disguised plugs for the latest movie or show or album or whatever. And, as Peter says, investigating your own proprietor has always been considered poor manners. Sometimes reality can only bear so much daylight.

Nevertheless, the news section is supposed to be different and advertisers are supposed to understand this. A separate set of rules apply. Not least because confidence in the product matters. Readers understand commercial pressures but they also know these need to be kept in check. If a paper’s news judgement is for sale it ceases to be a newspaper. And bleeding respectability in one area tends to leak into other parts of the paper.

Advertisers, of course, are free to take their business wherever they choose. There is no requirement for them to spend their money across a range of newspaper titles. And yet a free press, already menaced by parliamentary forces and special interests, is also too easily threatened by commercial interests. Every paper knows that upsetting advertisers must sometimes go with the territory of being in the news business. This too can be awkward but what is the alternative? Only the sacrifice of your credibility and without at least a measure of credibility a newspaper is doomed. Just look at the Daily Express, once the mightiest organ on Fleet Street but now an object of necessary mockery.

But if the Telegraph is wounded by Peter’s allegations it is also the case that HSBC’s already bruised reputation has taken another battering today. The bank is, as I say, free to spend its marketing budget as it sees fit but the idea it can think it reasonable to bully and threaten newspapers if they dare to run ‘unhelpful’ stories is another example of an over mighty corporation that evidently thinks the world deserves to be arranged in ways that comfort HSBC. Tough.

The evidence HSBC uses its commercial muscle to minimise inconvenient reporting and commentary is not confined to the pages of Private Eye or Peter Oborne’s resignation letter. The Guardian has revealed that HSBC intended to “pause” its advertising in that paper as a consequence of the Guardian’s coverage of the scandals enmeshing the bank. It is to the Guardian’s great credit that the paper told HSBC to get stuffed.

For the Telegraph’s sake I hope Peter’s allegations are unfounded; for his I hope they are accurate. These are sufficiently serious times for the newspaper industry that it can scarcely afford any further self-inflicted miseries.

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Show comments
  • andylowings

    I once worked for a European investing heavily (and ultimately unwisely) in Scottish tourism. I was surprised to see this portrayed in the local newspaper as “Local uproar as Swiss businessman spots easy rich- pickings”
    The next day we were contacted by the same newspaper asking would we wish an advertising account?

  • bengeo

    Do you ever see The Barclays and tax avoidance on the same page?

  • Kennie

    Mr Oborne,
    I have often disagreed with you and even criticised and perhaps been rude to you. However, because of the manner & reason for your resignation from the DT, I offer you my respect as a man of courage, conviction and principles.

  • MenControlTheMedia

    Will never forgive Peter Oborne for his odious appearance on QT after the Times revelations describing grooming as the cultural problem of girls being willing to get into cars with me for a packet of crisps. Having just had the cheek to berate a cleric of one of the big three middle eastern misogynist religions for victim blaming. Idiotic man.

  • andagain

    Just when it seemed my opinion of the banks could not sink any lower, one of them manages to dig it lower still. Along with my opinion of the Telegraph, as well.

  • R M

    Well done and thank you Mr. Oborne.

  • Sean L

    Talking of the Guardian, who timed their News International hacking exposé perfectly to coincide with the Milly Dowler trial, not a word on the Mirror who’ve been found to be no less culpable. As to advertising and editorial, the Guardian’s largely funded by and speaks for the biggest corporate interest of the lot, the state or public sector, that’s to say its members’ class interests, compared to which HSBC, and I’m totally with Peter Osborne on what he says in respect of the Telegraph, exerting some influence over the Telegraph editorial is small beer. Incidentally, tax evasion is making the headlines. But tax waste scarcely gets a mention. Which is the speciality of the Guardian readership. We occasionally hear of BBC overstaffing and extravagant salaries and expense claims but anyone with any experience of it will know that that’s the norm throughout the state sector. In every sphere, the preposterous job titles and job functions that serve no purpose beyond their own perpetuation are a matter of course. You only have to check out the Guardian’s job page. You’re paying for it anyway . . .

  • Owen_Morgan

    Oborne has worked for Iran. He is disgusting.

    • GraveDave

      The whole gamut of politicians work for countries with little or no respect for human rights. You don’t necessarily have to travel and live in any of those countries. The world spins on money, greed, hypocrisy and lies.

    • Tremulous

      His pamphlet “Guilty Men” about the EU was very good.

  • devondickie

    Peter Oborne has finally discovered that the banks’ “Causa Nostra” tentacles reach everywhere – even into the editorial offices of his own newspaper.

    Crime after scandal after fraud has characterised the UK’s financial services sector for years now. After costing us all £1.4 Tn in bailout costs, after rigging LIBOR, after miss selling, rip off pensions and allegedly aiding & abetting systematic tax evasion in Switzerland, Peter has finally discovered that the power of the banks and their inner cabal of the super rich reach into every corner of society.

    What HSBC did or did not do is yet to be established, but insiders hint at money laundering for international drugs cartels and organised crime, of industrial scale tax evasion, and of large amounts of money on deposit which comes from corrupt politicians and illegal activities. In 2012 HSBC had to pay the US authorities $1.9bn (£1.2bn) in a settlement over money laundering, the largest paid in such a case. Will today’s raids in Zurich see history repeating itself?

    Now Mr Oborne claims he has smelt a new rat – that HSBC has allegedly used its advertising spend @ the DT to leverage editorial policy. We wait to see his evidence.

    We also see the man who was in charge @ HSBC going through the revolving door into a Tory government ministry position and a peerage.

    Look Peter we live in a mafia state where the 1% of the population which owns and controls 90% of the wealth looks after its own and its own interests.

    The evidence for this is staring you in the face.

    Your championing of free market neo-libertarian ideology and rolling back the state isn’t creating freedom and justice – it is opening the door to turning this country into a mafia state run and controlled by the super rich, who commit crimes with impunity, no one is charged, no one goes to jail and the huge fines levied on them when they are caught as simply written off against their tax liabilities.

    There is no due process of law – there is no accountability – there is no fairness – there is no democracy – all there is is a sham of a government which is simply the best money can buy for those with the real power.

    • Owen_Morgan

      Are you sure you didn’t mean “Cosa Nostra”? “Causa” and “Cosa” mean completely different things in Italian, but I don’t get the impression that you are inclined to let facts get in the way of your “Weltanschauung”.

      • devondickie

        Its all Greek to me.

  • Luke

    “No-one has ever purchased a newspaper to discover the display adverts inside.”

    Not strictly true. Lawyers used to buy the Times on Tuesdays for the job ads – not for the legal section.

  • judyk113

    On Radio 4 Today this morning, Peter Oborne showed himself to be both grandiose and self contradictory, implying that the Telegraph must set up an independent enquiry at his behest to investigate the editorial decisions re the HSBC story which originates from the BBC and The Guardian and just happens to be totally in line with Miliband’s strategy of attacking the banks and the Tory press. He clearly stated that he didn’t know whether there had in fact been a decision by the DT not to run the story because of editorial considerations. But then later on in the interview, he said, “A fraud has been perpetrated.” No “ifs,” no “possibly”.

    Exactly the approach Oborne has always taken on the “influence of the zionist lobby” story that he’s been so ready to peddle, yet add at the end of each story that he has no actual evidence of what he’s just spent columns of print or thirty minutes of TV time joining the dots on

    I would have thought he might be an Iranian rather than a Muslim Bro asset because he was clearly a hired hand to write this obviously Iranian apologist book claiming that Iran has no nuclear weapon ambitions.

    As for the HSBC issue, it’s clearly the BBC & Grauniad campaign of the moment, pursued blatantly in support of the Labour Party.

    Yet the Guardian early this week published an outrageous PR puff piece by Jay Rayner on Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company, actually appealing for their readers to send her outfit money, when the Barclay Bros owned Spec published two very commendable pathbreaking articles exposing Kids Company as having highly dubious financial controls, numbers of users that just don’t add up, complete lack of transparency and very dubious ways of relating between staff and children. Neither the BBC nor the Guardian has carried these reports.

    Batmanghelidjh herself claims, based on clearly pseudoscientific absurd misappopriations from neuroscience that KC children have damaged brains and KC provides care which cures them.

    Where’s the Guardian and BBC outrage and demand for an independent enquiry? Or is it that Batmanghelidjh’s current spin that loads of starving children are crowding into Kids Company workshop (demonstrated by the Spec and OCSA article to be not credible) fits really beautifully into the Labour line about savage cuts and starvation being foisted on the poor? And by the way, Kids Company is pulling in £23,000,000 a year for its highly dubious operations.

  • Len

    According to the Guardian, the Telegraph protests that “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.” And yet, whenever I look at the Telegraph’s site lately, at the bottom of the page, like some ineradicable verruca, there keeps cropping up a heading: “The menu items you didn’t know you could order at McDonald’s”. It looks for all the world like a thinly disguised advert, but I guess it must some of be their award-winning editorial content.

  • Liberanos

    It’s quite possible for Mr Oborne to be as annoyingly nonsensical and inconsistent as he often is and completely right in this instance. The evidence would appear to suggest that he is.

  • ant

    Th relationship between advertising and editorial has become increasingly blurred over the years iand is like Oborne has only recently opened his eyes. I speak as a B2B editor of 20+years where once – even though advertising was our only revenue source and circulation ABC controlled – our publishers would stand solidly behind editorial independence. In the era of the likes of GQ – a ludicrous excuse for a magazine, more a PR catalogue with advertising on top – those days seem so long ago. Indeed we now have commercial radio presenters reading out advertising content on their own shows – something that used to be illegal in print. Sad days.

  • Shorne

    “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
    ― George Orwell

  • AJ

    I think there was always a tension between the warm beer and cricket One Nation Tory readers that Oborne seems to identify, and the libertarian/neoliberal lot represented by journalists like Allister Heath. I think, unfortunately, the paper has been slowly taken over by the latter, to its great detriment. The basic sense of decency, honesty and integrity and commitment to community has been subsumed by the awful Heath and his ilk and their ‘greed is good’ attitude. I think the Telegraph is going to find it hard to maintain any sense of objectivity in these circumstances.

    • Novus

      “Heath and his ilk and their ‘greed is good’ attitude”

      I was going to ask you for any evidence that this is Heath’s attitude, but then I thought I’d have a look myself. I googled “Allister Heath greed is good”. The first link was this:

      “Capitalism works even though people are greedy”. The tweet leads to a Telegraph article:

      The first words of the article are “Greed is not good”. Heath says that this is an argument made by the IEA which he finds “highly convincing”.

      Turn off Wall Street and maybe try to engage with what someone says instead of making lazy and offensive assumptions.

      • AJ

        I’m bang to rights, he doesn’t go full Gordon Gekko. I’ve read the IEA’s paper on this, and even AH’s article. Here is my issue – He says “Greed is not good and capitalism does not rely on greed – that, at least, is the argument made with great force in the latest pro-market, pro-free trade tract from the Institute of Economic Affairs” then says “as Boaz points out, is that markets direct people’s self-interest into socially beneficial directions” – that suggests to me that people’s ‘self-interest’ is in fact a key component of capitalism, in his view. Perhaps the distinction is between what is self-interest and what is greed. I’d argue that’s often semantics. I could and perhaps should have leveled a different criticism at him – that he is an ideologue who believes in absolutes i.e. the private sector is good and public sector bad. Or that the quality of his writing, and engagement with the issues is risible. And i promise that comes after trying to engage with what he has said.

        • Novus

          Well, yes: self-interest is a key component of capitalism, because self-interest is a key component of existence. Whether you want to call it greed or not, or whether more than one person will ever be able to agree precisely when self-interest becomes greed seems to be beside the point. The argument is that capitalism is the only system that generates a wider benefit out of individuals’ self-interest, because in order to pursue that self-interest they have to provide something of value to others. Conversely, any system with a greater or lesser degree of state intervention provides scope for people to satisfy their self-interest by manipulating and acquiring the power of the state, which benefits none but themselves. In that sense the public sector is definitely the problem.

          • AJ

            Quite so. It is the extent to which you believe self-interest can and should also be actively encouraged, whether there are any negative externalities to this, and the extent to which you believe that self-interest can result in exploitation and vast concentration of power to the detriment of society as a whole. In that sense, whether it is done by acquiring the power of the state or acquiring power beyond state control is neither here nor there. Capitalism needs a public sector, to some degree. It’s hard to hold private wealth without a police force and judicial system. You can be pro-capitalism and see a vital role for the state. Heath does not, I believe.

            • Novus

              I’m sure Heath sees a role at least for a police force and judicial system: he is not after all an anarchist. On the question of negative externalities, I would argue that attempts made, in good faith, by the state invariably lead to circumstances which produce other, frequently worse, externalities. This is because whereas a true (ie unregulated) private sector operates on faith and conscience, the intervention of the state introduces regulations which substitute compliance for conscience. This has been vividly illustrated recently with the tax avoidance thing. Once a process or situation is regulated it is a natural assumption that anything which is not specifically forbidden is permitted. A 17,000 page tax code is still not long enough to cover every eventuality or every inventive dodge, but it creates the impression that as long as the rules are followed then there is no problem. I’m not suggesting that abolishing all taxation would create a system of conscience-based auto-taxation (!) but I think it’s true that given a) lower taxation generally and b) simpler and flatter taxation,there would be much less scope – and, crucially, therefore, much less incentive – for “strictly legal” tax avoidance.

  • Magnolia

    I hate adverts and I block them out because they destroy my brain.
    I use adbloc and whenever I listen to lbc then I turn off for the 3 min periods of repetitive adverts.
    I could not use my computer or listen to non-bbc radio without doing this.
    If it is only ads that pay for intellectual thoughts in the written or spoken form then get used to a different business model because we will not waste OUR valuable time on mind numbing cr*p.
    The DT have hollowed out the on-line comment offering by effectively shutting down the blogs and denying comment on important pieces and they doubled the price for it!
    The old rules do not apply any more.

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    At least that’s one fewer outlet in which I’ll have to ignore Oborne’s anti-Semitic, pro-Islamist crap.

  • Hamburger

    The problem with Oborne is that his articles vary from good to prejudiced rubbish with very little between.

    • GUBU


      In the last few weeks I’ve read pieces by Mr Oborne lauding Welfare Reform, hailing the Coalition as one of our greatest ever governments, and claiming that Mr Miliband was the greatest opposition leader of our time. The only truly consistent line he seems to take of late is his anti-Israeli nonsense.

      That said, I fear he may be right about the Telegraph going downhill.

      Any publication which cannot properly distinguish the difference between deer hunting and deer stalking should be closed forthwith, its building demolished and its staff and their families sold into bondage.

      I mean, how could they?

      • Hamburger

        Which one is going down faster? Osborne or the Telegraph?

        • GUBU

          I still admire Mr Oborne’s books about the emergence of the ‘political class’ and its tendency towards mendacity. At a time when most of us were otherwise transfixed by Mr Blair’s winning smile, he pretty much nailed the corrosive effect that New Labour’s pereference for distortion and misdirection would eventually have on our political life.

          However, of late his journalism has become somewhat bipolar in character – not necessarily a case of going downhill, but verring erratically from side to side. The same Oborne who proclaims Mr Miliband’s greatness as an opposition leader is the same Oborne who asserted that Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the greatest theologians of all time. Both opinions should be taken with a large pinch of salt – and read like they were written within easy walking distance of the drinks trolley.

          Sadly, the Telegraph is not what it once was under editors like Hastings and Moore.

          But nothing is what it once was, is it?

  • gerontius redux

    “The Spectator shares a proprietor with The Daily Telegraph”

    Same owners, so same policy will apply I assume.
    I stopped my subscription to The Spectator some while ago. I miss the arts coverage and the book reviews and of course Jeremy Clarke. Oh and the quirky stuff like Dot Wordsworth, but for the rest, no thanks