Oborne's Scandalous Charges Show Journalism Needs a New Firewall

The former Telegraph journo claims the paper ran a false story for clicks and buried content critical of a major advertiser. The media needs to change.

Is the age of ethics in journalism over? Former Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne’s explosive allegations about the causes of his resignation from the London paper invite this question, as they appear to share a root with recent scandalous conduct around the press.

Oborne makes several allegations, which his former paper has yet to answer in detail. He says that the Telegraph deliberately and repeatedly downplayed critical coverage of the massive bank HSBC so that it would resume buying advertising space in the paper. The Telegraph’s investigations team had at the end of 2012 published a string of articles alleging funny business at HSBC’s offshore-banking arm on the island of Jersey. Lawyers for the paper’s billionaire owners, Oborne charges, “became closely involved.” “From the start of 2013 onwards,” he writes, “stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable.”

Oborne reports that “executives say” that Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, “was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank.” Oborne links this to a desire to get HSBC to buy advertising again. Oborne quotes “one former Telegraph journalist” saying that MacLennan “would express concern about headlines even on minor stories....Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.”

Oborne argues that an examination of the Telegraph’s coverage of HSBC in recent years, particularly in the past week, shows the impact of the interference: while the Telegraph’s rivals were giving HSBC’s scandals front-page attention, the Telegraph had short stories buried inside the paper. And he suggests that several other Telegraph advertisers have earned similarly unusual attention.

The danger of advertiser interference in journalism is an old one. Yet Oborne’s tale of a newspaper shedding jobs and becoming increasingly beholden to its advertisers suggests that the incentives around advertising have changed. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as advertising has changed radically in recent years. Newspapers used to be one of the only good venues for advertising, which gave them the pick of buyers of ad space and allowed them to extract a premium on ad sales. The rise of the internet changed that. Any website—not just newspapers—can host advertising space, and major companies like Google have made tools that allow website owners to easily cover their site in ad blocks and then automatically fill those blocks with advertisers. Media outlets must fight harder to capture a smaller share of the ad business. Ad buyers have a lot more power—and harried media executives face stronger incentives to defer to big buyers.

Under these circumstances, a new understanding of the “firewall” between a media outlet’s ad sales and its journalism may be necessary. Radical transparency on ad purchases and even on communications with buyers would be one solution. Press organizations might, for example, release all this information, with a delay (perhaps a year or two) to allow their business side some discretion.

Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, the outlet that ran Oborne’s allegations, suggests stronger media regulation could also restore the firewall—although this would be a nonstarter in the United States, where the Constitution protects the press from such interventions. And Fitzgerald adds that nonprofit status for media outlets like hers means that “corporations don’t get a say in how we [...] hold the powerful to account.” Yet nonprofits need money, too—and the finances of many for-profit media outlets suggest their owners aren’t always insistent that their publications stay in the black. For profit or not, serious, independent journalism may need help to survive in an environment that rewards deference and vulgarity. Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media may be so independent that its writers air their disputes with him on his own pages, but it’s doubtful that there are many other investors and foundations willing to provide cash with few conditions. Most outlets will need to keep their independence under the tough conditions Oborne describes.