Peter Oborne blows the whistle on the Telegraph – and could a German edit the Guardian?

In the aftermath of Oborne's resignation, there are other questions to be asked about the newspaper industry.

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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.

 

More raking, less muck

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.”

 

The future’s digital

Could a German edit the Guardian? Among the 26 candidates to replace the present editor, Alan Rusbridger, is Wolfgang Blau, born in Stuttgart and the former editor-in-chief of the online edition of the German weekly newspaper Zeit. He is no joke candidate. The Guardian’s director of digital strategy since 2012, he is one of four who have agreed to appear on the ballot held by Guardian journalists. The others are Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of guardian.com, Katharine Viner, the Guardian US editor, and Emily Bell, a former Guardian director of digital content, now a journalism professor at Columbia University in the US. The winner is guaranteed a place on the shortlist when the Scott Trust chooses the editor.

Bookmakers’ odds have Gibson, Viner and Bell as front-runners. Blau is a 10/1 outsider behind the columnist Jonathan Freedland and the BBC2 Newsnight editor, Ian Katz, neither of whom (if they have applied) chose to put his case to the hacks. But don’t think that because English isn’t Blau’s native language he can be ruled out. He is fluent in what is now the most essential language: digital. Words were never as important in newspapers as outsiders think. In the early 20th century Harry Guy Bartholomew, who was said to be almost illiterate, became editorial director of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial because of his mastery of pictures and graphics in print. In the early 21st century, skills of digital presentation are what aspiring editors need; the Guardian now calls itself a digital business that happens to print a newspaper. And unlike all the other candidates mentioned, Blau isn’t an Oxford graduate.

 

Sober untruths

According to official statistics, more than a fifth of British adults, including nearly a third of Londoners and a quarter of the 16-to-24-year-old age group, is teetotal. I just do not believe these figures. Many people, confronted by an official-looking person with a clipboard, will tell untruths about drinking or other forms of indulgence on which they believe the government frowns. Besides, some people have only the vaguest idea of what counts as alcohol. I once knew a man who described himself as a non-drinker but still took wine regularly.

 

Kinky controversy

To the Harold Pinter Theatre near Piccadilly Circus, London, for Sunny Afternoon, a musical about the pop group the Kinks. It is claimed that, when they began in the 1960s, they were Britain’s “only socialist band”. Is that true? Ray Davies, the lead singer, and his brother, Dave, the lead guitarist, were brought up as working-class socialists in Muswell Hill, north London, and their songs had a certain working-class grittiness. “Out of work and got no money/ A Sunday joint of bread and honey,” they lamented. They also satirised middle-class, materialistic lifestyles, notably in “A Well Respected Man”: “And he hopes to grab his father’s loot,/When Pater passes on.” But their songs also contain such lines as “I was born in a welfare state/Ruled by a bureaucracy”, and they couldn’t perform in America for many years because they refused to pay dues to the musicians’ union. I reserve judgement on whether the Kinks belong in the socialist hall of fame. 

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.

This article appears in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging