Archive for the Media Category

Oborne makes a stand for journalistic integrity

Posted in Banking, Media with tags , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Peter Oborne

What do you do if you are a journalist and your editor refuses to cover a story because it has commercial implications for the paper?

In Peter Oborne’s case you resign and you have to applaud him for it. If you’ve missed it, Oborne, Chief Political Commentator for the Daily Telegraph, resigned yesterday because of his paper’s lamentable coverage of the HSBC tax evasion story.

Launching a broadside against the editors of the Telegraph, Oborne claims that the Telegraph’s pitiful coverage, which amounted to a small column at the bottom of page 2, was due to the fact that HSBC is a major advertiser.

It’s difficult not to agree with him. I noticed last week that the Telegraph had hardly touched the story despite it being front page news for the Guardian, which broke the story, and blanket coverage across the BBC, Channel 4 News and Sky. Even The Times picked it up!

I originally thought that this was political partisanship, the Telegraph being right-leaning and the story being an embarrassment to David Cameron who appointed Stephen Green, former CEO of HSBC and an ordained minister with the Church of England, who once wrote a book about ethical banking (you can’t write comedy like this), as a Trade Minister in his government.

I was wrong. According to Oborne, advertising revenue was behind the decision and on Channel 4 News last night hinted that other stories involving HSBC, presumably the laundering of drug money, a story which broke in 2012 and the bank’s involvement in the manipulation of the London Interbank Borrowed Rate, or LIBOR, the benchmark global interest rate.

These are serious allegations for the Telegraph and the paper has hit back hard calling Oborne’s accusations “astonishing” and “sinister”.

But there are two wider issues here. Firstly, in an age of plummeting circulation rates, newspapers are increasing reliant on corporate advertising spend to keep going. Inevitably that leads to compromises and it takes a strong editor to stand up to newspaper owners when it comes to money.

Which brings me to the Barclay Brothers, owners of the Telegraph. One can’t help but wonder whether the fact that the brothers are wealthy tax exiles in the offshore tax haven of Guernsey played a role in this story effectively being spiked.

Certainly it would be in their interest to sweep this little issue under the carpet as quickly as possible, both from a personal and professional point of view. What was it that Leona Hemsley, one of the world’s great tax avoiders said, “Only the little people pay taxes”?


Miliband’s Dad – should Ed bring back MailWatch?

Posted in Media, Politics with tags , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Daily MailI suspect there is a lot of debate this morning (at least there should be) amongst PRs about how they would have advised Ed Miliband to respond to the Daily Mail’s attack on his father.

PRs are naturally conciliatory. God only knows I’ve taken it in the teeth often enough and not bitten back, but I think I would have been tempted to in this case.

PR wisdom is that you should never take on the man with the microphone, in this case Mail editor Paul Dacre, but there is plenty enough historical evidence to justify a more robust response.

A university friend of mine once wrote to former Senator Lloyd Bentsen (he of the great put down to Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy”) to ask him what went wrong with the Dukakis campaign in 1988 as part of the research for his MA. Incredibly the late Senator replied and said the big mistake had been not biting back hard enough when the Bush campaign and right wing media laid into them in the spring of 1988 when they had a double digit opinion poll lead.

Clinton learnt that lesson in 1992 with his rapid rebuttal techniques only for John Kerry to forget it again when faced with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

New Labour also learnt the lesson with Alistair Campbell initiating MailWatch in the late 1990s as a rapid rebuttal to anything derogatory  that appeared in that day’s paper. Ultimately, under pressure from Blair who wanted a more conciliatory stance and the Mail itself (“if you can’t take it don’t dish it out”), Campbell stopped, but was tempted on more than one occasion, according to his diaries, to bring it back.

Which brings us to Miliband. In my book the response is a hit both morally and politically. I’m not sure you can let that sort of thing lie but he gains in two ways.

Firstly, he looks a more sympathetic figure this morning and not the policy wonk he has always been portrayed as. Secondly, he dominated the news cycle on Tuesday wiping the Tory Conference out.

As for the Mail, misjudgement does not sufficiently cover it. Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian says it offended the British sense of fair play, but if I was in charge at The Daily Mail and General Trust, owners of the newspaper, I would be more worried by the Twitter response, which was not anger, but ridicule, and that is much, much worse

Leveson: journalist conscience clause could be Inquiry’s lasting legacy!

Posted in Media with tags , , , on November 30, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Leveson InquiryThe biggest irony of yesterday’s publication of the report from the Leveson Inquiry into the standards, ethics and abuses of the UK press, is that in recent years our press in this country has been incredibly well-behaved.

With Sir Brian’s Sword of Damocles hanging over their collective heads the press has, in effect, reformed itself.

I offer this as evidence.  Firstly, not one single national newspaper published the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge topless on holiday.  In fact only one newspaper, in what was a deliberate two fingers to Sir Brian, published the photos of Harry in Vegas.

Is this some Damascene Conversion to the right of privacy?  Almost certainly not and one suspects that once the haggling over self-regulation “underpinned by statue” is out of the way, normal service will be resumed.

However, buried in Sir Brian’s mammoth publication is one recommendation which could have very far-reaching consequences for how our press behaves, namely the conscience clause in journalist employment contracts, which would allow individual journalists to opt out of working on any story which they believe to be unethical.

When I heard the Labour MP Tom Watson speak in Birmingham earlier this year, he offered the view that the abuses at the News of the World could never have happened if Wapping had been unionised and there had been a counterbalance to employer abuse of power.

There are many in the trade union movement who agree with him and it would seem that Leveson does too.  Some of the most interesting sections of the report in fact, detail the culture of abuse and bullying at Wapping which fed the (alleged) criminal behaviour of journalists.

There are numerous positives that have come out of the Leveson Inquiry and its resulting report, but the conscience clause, and the increasing recognition of the positive effects that workplace unionisation can have in curbing employee abuse, could be Sir Brian’s most lasting legacy.


Savile scandal is a body blow to the BBC’s editorial credibility

Posted in Media with tags , , , , on October 24, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The facts behind the Jimmy Savile Scandal are, unfortunately, horribly familiar, but the puzzling bit about the whole affair is not that Savile managed to get away with it for so long, but the editorial decision-making process within the BBC once Newsnight got wind of the story.

Here was a story which was potentially career-making for the journalists involved, requiring brave editorial decisions and the backing of senior management.  This could have been one of the BBC’s finest hours, fearlessly turning the spotlight on itself and, in turn, metaphorically pulling down the Saddam-like statues which were being erected in Savile’s name, not least by BBC Light Entertainment.

It’s not as if the journalists involved were going that far out on a limb.  The investigation had generated filmed witness statements and Savile was known to have been interviewed by various police forces over the years.

There was not even fear of retribution.  It is not uncommon for journalists to want to run a story, but for their editors to be warned off by the in-house lawyers for fear of being sued for six figure sums.  But Savile is dead and the dead can’t sue.

So, instead of being fearless, supporting investigative journalism at its finest and having to put up with some short-term discomfort as part of a whole host of organisations who now have questions to answer, the BBC decided to spike the story.

The lessons of history, from Watergate through to Hillsborough and beyond, show us that the truth will, 99.9% of the time, come out. Somebody will turn whistleblower; a document will be uncovered or someone will listen to the tapes.

Did nobody think to try and get ahead of the story and break it on the BBC’s terms?  Lo’ and behold, less than a year after the BBC decision to drop the story, ITV screened its own version of events which has set off the current storm.

One of the biggest ironies in all of this is that many of those whom we can only assume were involved in the decision, namely Helen Boaden, Head of BBC News and Stephen Mitchell, Deputy Director of News have gone to ground.  They don’t want to talk to the media!

Many of these individuals, from Director General George Entwistle down, are paid huge amounts of money (the BBC’s Head of News is paid circa £350k per year) to get these decisions right.

They have failed and in the process have done enormous damage to the BBC’s credibility.

Forty years ago today journalism started on the road towards its finest hour!

Posted in Media, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

40 years ago today the Washington Post carried a small story at the bottom of page one with the headline “Five held in plot to bug Democratic offices”. This was the start of what is probably the greatest journalistic triumph of all time.

At the time nobody much cared, but within two years the dogged pursuit of the story by the Post, in particular journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had caused the story to be renamed, creating a suffix which has become synonymous with political scandal ever since.

Watergate, as it became known, is the mother of all‘gates. In simple terms it was, in Nixon’s words, a “third-rate burglary”of the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex perpetrated by White House henchmen and designed to uncover embarrassing information about candidates for the Presidency.  In reality, it is the story of how journalists on the Post, in the face of unprecedented political and peer pressure (for months no other newspaper would touch the story) uncovered a political scandal which brought down a President.

In many ways this was the high water mark for the profession. With a series of brilliant scoops, often using unnamed sources, the Post linked campaign contributions to the Committee to re-elect the President, or CREEP as it was known (you couldn’t make it up!), to the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars and then linked the White House to the burglars in the person of Charles Colson, Special Adviser to the President who was effectively in charge of campaign dirty tricks.

When Nixon embarked on a cover-up, the Post continued its pursuit alleging that the White House had instructed the CIA to illegally block the FBI investigation and that documents had been shredded at the Justice Department.

As Nixon wriggled on the hook the Post linked Presidential advisers of increasing importance with either the original break-in or the cover-up, eventually forcing Nixon to sack his most senior advisers, namely Chief of Staff HR ‘Bob’ Haldemann and policy adviser John Ehrlichman. When the Senate started investigating, and the Oval Office “tapes’ became public knowledge, Nixon’s fate was sealed. In all 43 people went to prison for Watergate related crimes, although of course not Nixon himself.

Forty years on the media landscape looks very different. The web is making traditional print news look, at best sluggish and, at worst, positively outdated. Newspapers across the country are closing, merging or going down one edition per week. Social media is making us all into ‘Citizen Journalists’ armed with our iPhones to record events to post ourselves on YouTube. Twitter and trending allow instant sharing of information.

Most importantly, journalism itself is now in the dock.  Parallels between phone hacking and Watergate have been made before, but it is startling that the key lesson, that the cover-up is at least as bad as the original crime, appears not to have been learnt. For the White House substitute News International with all of its alleged shredding, obstruction of justice and non-denial denials.

However, it would be wrong to paint journalism as an outdated and dying profession.  The Telegraph’s investigation of MPs expenses proved that investigative journalism can perform a public duty in the 21st century. The challenge for Leveson is to bring the press into line without strangling the opportunity for the sort of investigation which holds our public officials up to scrutiny and can bring down a President.

Phone hacking: despite appearances the centre of gravity has moved west!

Posted in Media with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

With the Murdoch’s due to appear at Leveson this week and Labour MP Tom Watson publishing his new book, Dial M for Murdoch, you could be forgiven for thinking that the UK remains at the centre of the phone hacking crisis engulfing the Murdoch media empire.
You’d be wrong.  Almost out of sight is a development which threatens News Corporation in the US, as opposed to News International in the UK and that is very, very significant.  The Dowler family lawyer, Mark Lewis, now claims that he is representing four individuals whose phones were hacked on US soil.  At least one is a US citizen.  Others are, apparently, coming out of the woodwork daily.
According to a Guardian report last week, there is evidence that Fox News, Murdoch’s US cable TV operation is now implicated.  For News Corporation, the holding company, this is a nightmare come true. 
If phone hacking has crossed the Atlantic then senior management at News Corporation could find themselves in the dock.  Federal law states that an individual who violates telecommunications privacy for commercial purposes can face five years in prison with a 10 year tariff for a subsequent offence.   What’s more, civil courts can also offer damages in relation to the profits gained by the violators with punitive damages possible thereafter.
How big a deal is this?  Let’s put it this way.  In the US, News Corporation’s cable properties constitute over 60 per cent of operating income for the company.  With News Corporation making circa$1.06bn (£888m) net profit in their last quarterly filing to the SEC it is clear that any implication that Fox has been up to dirty tricks has massive implications.
However, it doesn’t stop there.  The Met Police’s investigation of bribery of public officials also has the potential to cross the Atlantic if it hasn’t already.  The Foreign Corrupt Practises Act offers the opportunity for the SEC to investigate the operations of News International in the UK but prosecute senior officials of News Corporation in the US.
The big question is, where does all this end?  My own view is that a number of very high profile people, some of whom have had access to the very highest levels of UK government (you know who I mean!)  are going to prison.  Probably for perjury, possibly for bribery and possibly for perverting the court of justice. 
Unfortunately James Murdoch, who was recently spirited out of the country to a new position in the US, in an attempt to distance him from phone hacking, may find that New York is uncomfortably close to the SEC headquarters in Washington DC.

A tale of machine tools, salmon fishing and er … Ewan MacGregor!

Posted in business, Media with tags , , , , , on April 19, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

What do 5-axis machining centres, salmon fishermen and a certain Scottish actor have in common?  I’ll explain.  In July of last year I travelled to Tyneside (Team Valley Business Park to be precise) to interview the managing director of a company called Responsive Group for an article on behalf of one of my clients.  Responsive are a big user of their machine tools.

I was met by the MD, Peter Bernard, and the chairman of Responsive, Paul Torday.  Both, very patiently, led me through the history of Responsive, the company’s approach to manufacturing and their use of some very big and powerful machine tools.  As an aside, anyone who thinks British manufacturing is dead in the water needs to get out more and visit companies like Responsive.

Afterwards, while Peter was giving me a tour of the production facilities he casually observed, “Paul’s an interesting chap, he just decided on the spur of the moment to write a book a few years ago, it’s been published too!”  When I returned to the office I looked the book up on Amazon and added it to my ‘wish list’.  However, as the weeks wore on and my bedtime reading suffered due to the sheer exhaustion of having two young children, I never actually bought it.

A few days ago a bus crossed my path on the Hagley Road in Birmingham with an advert on the side for a new film called ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, starring Ewan MacGregor and Emily Blunt.  Where had I heard that title before?  And then it occurred to me.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a film based on the book written by Paul Torday, chairman of the Responsive Group.  It is, apparently, a romantic contemporary fable about an attempt to introduce salmon into the Yemeni wadis.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to bump into Peter again at MACH 2012, the machine tool expo which is a mecca for anyone turned on by metal cutting.  He had hot-footed it down to the NEC straight from the world premiere on Tuesday night.  His verdict on the new film?  “It’s very good.”