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”?