"PRIVATE Eye… has been a major source of information for Telegraph journalists wanting to understand what is happening on their paper." So said Peter Oborne
after resigning as chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph this week. He left in protest at "a most sinister development": a collapse in the distinction between the advertising department and editorial, exemplified by the paper’s terror of upsetting its valuable advertiser HSBC.
The wide coverage given to his exit provoked a temper-tantrum of an editorial in Friday’s Telegraph. "This newspaper makes no apology for the way in which it has covered the HSBC group and the allegations of wrongdoing by its Swiss subsidiary," it huffed. "We have covered this matter as we do all others, according to our editorial judgment and informed by our values. Foremost among those values is a belief in free enterprise and free markets."
And, er, the value of HSBC’s adverts. Over the past year the Eye has revealed time and again how news reports and features in the Telegraph are suppressed, promoted or altered according to whether or not the subject buys advertisements in the paper. The revelation in our latest issue, of the extraordinary lengths to which the Daily Telegraph had gone to avoid covering the HSBC scandal, is just the most flagrant example yet, the one that eventually pushed Oborne over the brink and left a once-great newspaper with its editorial integrity in tatters.
Great Telegraph scoop
An earlier HSBC story, about Channel Island tax avoidance, was one of the great Telegraph scoops of recent years – and led to a year-long advertising boycott by HSBC after its publication in November 2012. This was doubly embarrassing as the bank’s chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, is a friend of Telegraph chairman Aidan Barclay, and the Barclay family retail empire Shop Direct is a significant borrower from HSBC.
Since the resumption of HSBC’s advertising, worth £1m a year, Telegraph chief executive Murdoch "Shifty McGifty" MacLennan had made it clear he’d rather the paper lose its soul than lose the account again. And so it came to pass...
The banking editor, Harry Wilson, resigned last year after discovering that a news story by him about HSBC’s finances had been pulled from the website to mollify the touchy advertiser (see Eye 1359). But surely even Shifty McGifty couldn’t expect his editors to ignore something as big as the recent revelations? He certainly could. When Panorama put out a press release on the Sunday morning, summarising its documentary to be broadcast the next day, MacLennan told “weekend editors” Robert Winnett and Liz Hunt not to cover it at all.
When the story then led the BBC and Guardian on Monday, the Telegraph’s greasy advertising honcho Dave King asked MacLennan to ensure that the paper maintained its omertà. This became even more absurd as the row spread to parliament. The lobby team protested they were being made to look like idiots, with even sketch-writer Michael Deacon having to avoid the emergency debate in the Commons, the main drama of the day. But MacLennan still refused to cancel his order, despite appeals from "weekday editor" Chris Evans.
After the story led the BBC news at 6pm, Evans made a final plea to MacLennan that what remained of the paper’s credibility was at stake. Thus it was that in Tuesday’s print edition a blink-and-you-miss-it report about the political row was buried at the foot of p2, the customary dumping ground for stories you don’t want readers to see. Even this was kept off the Telegraph website, keenly studied at the Far Eastern HQ of HSBC.
The ever-helpful Eye
On Tuesday morning the tax scandal was on the front pages of the FT, Mail and Guardian. By the end of Tuesday afternoon, with still no word about it on the Telegraph website, the ever-helpful Eye rang the newsdesk and financial desk to tip them off about the story, since they seemed unaware of it.
Lo and behold, early that evening two reports by the chief political correspondent Christopher Hope suddenly materialised online. To atone for this boldness, however, the news pages of the next day’s print edition – Wednesday – carried precisely nothing on the subject that had now been dominating the political agenda for three days.
Amid all that, the Telegraph had the cheek to highlight British Press Awards nominations for the "business team of the year" and financial columnists Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Jeremy Warner. It also carried a puff about being "best for business". Best, that is, if you are a bank which believes that silence is golden, and well worth buying for a million quid a year.