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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”