Peter Oborne appearing on BBC News to discuss the HSBC tax story.
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Peter Oborne blows the whistle on the Telegraph

The former chief political commentator says the paper increasingly commits “a form of fraud on its readers” by suppressing or downplaying stories, such as the HSBC tax avoidance scandal.

Newspapers have a problem: their sales of printed copies are falling sharply as readers migrate online. And because most readers refuse to pay for website access, papers increasingly rely on advertising revenues, online and in print, to stay in business. Even the Guardian website runs articles sponsored by management consultancies, insurance, travel, motor and other companies, as well as “partner zones” set up with the likes of Visa and Unilever. But although editorial executives sometimes struggle against commercial pressures to blur the boundaries between genuine features and those generated by corporate advertisers, the Guardian has so far managed to prevent its paymasters from interfering with news coverage and editorial comment.

Not so the Telegraph, according to Peter Oborne, its chief political commentator, who has resigned in an explosion of anger. On the openDemocracy website, he accuses the Telegraph of running news stories solely to please big-spending advertisers such as the Cunard shipping line. Worse, in what he calls “a most sinister development”, he says the Telegraph increasingly commits “a form of fraud on its readers” by suppressing or downplaying stories, such as the HSBC tax avoidance scandal and Tesco’s false accounting, that reflect badly on big advertisers.

Oborne, though politically on the right, is a brave and independent-minded journalist who takes on such difficult targets as the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on British policy in the Middle East. We frequently hear about the potential dangers to press freedom from state regulation. But an equal, perhaps greater, danger comes from corporate advertisers. Oborne, in a rare example of whistleblowing from within the news­paper industry, has rightly put the subject in the public arena.

But in one respect, Oborne’s 3,000-word article for Open Democracy is disingenuous. He says he joined the Telegraph five years ago because it was “the most important conservative-leaning newspaper in Britain”. But it has long since ceded that title to the Daily Mail – which gave sustained coverage to the HSBC and Tesco scandals – and as long ago as 2006 the Guardian ran a feature on the Telegraph headlined “The dizzying decline of a great paper”. Besides, the Telegraph, even in its heyday, disliked journalistic muckraking. Its editors argued that to expose the failings of national institutions risked undermining confidence in the established order and creating social instability. The former Sunday Telegraph editor Peregrine Worsthorne once said: “It is a very worrying development when journalists see their only function as . . . pointing out what’s wrong with the country.”

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine. Get your copy

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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The Secret Civil Servant: Let’s hope cabinet followed the civil service formula on Brexit away day

 Though it’s probably best if they skipped the trust exercises.

It’s enough to make your blood run cold. 

“And before we get started, I want everyone to take a post-it note, and I want everyone to write down what they personally want to achieve from this away day. When you’ve done that, please come and stick them on this whiteboard for discussion.” 

Every Civil Service Away Day adheres to a very strict formula. And regardless of how categorically useless it was, afterwards everyone is duty bound to say what a roaring success it was and what a lovely day they’ve had, just like the couple who have narrowly missed out on the speedboat on Bullseye. 

The talk around the cabinet Brexit away day suggests they stuck to this winning format, subject to a bit of fine tuning.

To start with, there will be the obligatory ice breakers, which nobody has ever enjoyed. Considering the various tensions, it’s probably best if the cabinet skip the trust exercises or Chequers will end up looking like a dressing station at Rorke’s Drift.

It is important to remember that anybody doing anything at an away day is automatically granted the title “facilitator”, and everything they do on the day, no matter how mundane, is an act of “facilitation”. It’s not clear who was given this job for the cabinet, but I imagine it was probably Gavin Barwell. 

There will then be an introductory address by the Big Boss. This will focus on strategy, ideally containing little or no actual substance. That will pose few problems to this administration. No doubt the ambition will be somewhat greater, with whole conversations without discernible content whatsoever, just a mixture of non alphabetic sounds, semaphore and exhalation all carefully minuted by a mime artist.

A question and answer session will usually follow, when the most ambitious members of staff will try and ask the most tediously self aware question, to raise their profile. The worst are usually young career focussed men, who may even introduce themselves before embarking on their question. 

I like to call these people, “wankers”. 

This, however, can be occasionally fraught with danger: at a recent departmental away day, a system had been set up so that participants could submit questions which would appear on a screen beside the panel. What they hadn’t realised was that questions could be submitted using any name they wished. By the time Sir Anthony Hopkins asked for the fourth time which was Sir Tim Barrow’s favourite Spice Girl, the chair couldn’t bring the session to a close quick enough. 

It’s unlikely the PM will hold such a session, lest she have to tell a number of cabinet ministers to facilitate off for repeatedly asking if they can be Prime Minister.

After that, the day will be split up into breakout sessions. These will be themed and are usually split by interest such as policy vs strategy, or delivery vs implementation. Ideally these will make no sense, go on too long, and be led by a really evangelical individual who while technically speaking English, will be a real struggle unless you’re up to speed on your reputational dispositives. That should work just fine at Chequers. As with civil servants, I imagine there are a number of ways to split the cabinet's attendees. Plotters vs The Deluded could work neatly, or perhaps  Cake vs Eat it.

The cabinet's away day was rumoured to include a separate session led by various ambassadors and experts on EU member states. I’m sure we can all agree,  increased cabinet-level understanding of European perspectives will come in very, very handy once we activate Article 50.

Then it’ll all have been done for another year. Time to make a quick getaway to the pub for the obligatory post away day drink, otherwise Gavin Barwell will lose the deposit he paid on that function room at The Jolly Taxpayer. 

Let’s hope some consensus is reached. Early reports already suggest it was a roaring success. I’m not holding my breath. There were rumours that the meeting wouldn’t be allowed to conclude until key agreements had been reached, a bit like a governmental equivalent of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome. What with David Davis’s reference earlier this week, it’s good to see that the franchise has finally become recognised as a significant political blueprint. 

Regardless of the decisions that are or aren’t reached this week at Chequers, it’s unlikely that when Jim Barnier shows us the mystery prize, it’s going to be a bespoke free trade agreement with all the trimmings. Commiserations, Prime Minister. Let’s see what you could’ve won. 

It doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a lovely day. 

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Gavin Barwell probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.