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