Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph last week was bold, poignant and has shocked many, but none more so than the media world. As is the nature of a scandal in a digital age, the fallout is constantly unfolding before our eyes. Oborne’s words, published on openDemocracy, make for a succinct, engrossing but ultimately unsettling read. While there is an inevitable element of bitterness, the emotion driving the exposé does indeed come off as that of someone wearied and deeply disappointed.
A couple of Oborne’s points seem a little thin. His comments about the Telegraph with the rise of ‘click culture’ seemed excessively disapproving. The hyper-consumption of media inevitably means that the very nature of it will have to change, and continue to do so to ensure survival. As we all know, a strong online presence and round the clock updates are now necessary for all publications if they are to succeed.
Oborne talks about a collapse of standards, and this is certainly a problem when quality and accuracy are bypassed in favour of sensationalism. The need to remain ‘current’ in a society evermore frequently defined by trends, both to our detriment and benefit, is a legitimate and shrewd concern. Nonetheless, it must also be said that while there has been a contemptible slip in priorities, it is perhaps more crucial for the Telegraph to maintain advertisers as they do not have the same access to additional funding as other papers.
On the whole however, Oborne’s accusations seem to be built on solid ground. The incredibly high turnover of editors, the flocks of dismissed staff and, most jarring of all, the degree of censorship on all HSBC related news in lieu of offending such a substantial advertiser for the paper. Oborne’s central accusation is that the Telegraph’s minimal coverage of the recent allegations against HSBC regarding their worldwide tax-evasion scheme was a editorial decision solely informed by commercial interests, thus negatively affecting not only the trust between reader and publication but also the freedom to report. Data analysts from Kings College London took it upon themselves to study and compare coverage of the HSBC scandal in various publications:
“The Telegraph devoted far fewer articles to the subject than comparable UK news sources. Those articles that it did publish contained little or no investigation into the allegations levelled at HSBC, instead framing the issue as a matter of embarrassment or conflict among politicians, political parties, or public bodies.”
As if this was not damning enough, the Telegraph’s reaction has done little to counter the notion that things are in dire straits at the newspaper. Its unapologetic post entitled “The Telegraph’s promise to our readers” defended their general conduct but failed to directly address any of Oborne’s accusations. A mere day later, the paper published a backlash story on the Guardian (after they had already disparaged the publication in their initial post) accusing them of committing the same unsavoury blurring of the distinction between the editorial and commercial sides of the paper. However, something far worse was to follow, when another article was posted, under the generic byline ‘Daily Telegraph Reporter’, that linked the suicide of two NewsUK staff (publisher of The Times and The Sun) with the burden caused by commercial pressure.
The management of the paper must ensure that a far better job is done of balancing journalistic excellence with commercial success.
The journalists at the Telegraph are some of the very best and it is the management of the paper that must carry out the duty it has to its staff, as well as to its readers to ensure that a far better job is done of balancing journalistic excellence with commercial success. It is time now for the Telegraph to address the accusations made in Oborne’s article. This seems a more viable way of repairing some of the damage inflicted to the reputation of the paper than the mudslinging that has only further incriminated it.
Oborne closes with a ominous statement: “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.” The media all too often amplifies the voices of a minority, presenting them to the public as a representative truth. Oborne is right that the media is supposed to be unafraid to challenge and provoke, stabbing at the underbelly of corrupt organisations and exposing those that attempt to deceive the public. If they are the very bodies engaging in such illicit activities then they will become little more than commercial puppets.