Wednesday, 18 February 2015

How long can the Telegraph survive?

The London Daily Telegraph used to be one of the two or three most respected journals in the UK. Although traditionally associated with the conservative shires and the military, the accuracy and depth of its coverage of labour matters was second to none. (This was the main reason why my father, a life-long socialist, had it as his regular broadsheet, though the bridge column and the excellent crossword may have contributed.) And of course it was very well informed about comings and goings in the administration, royalty and the upper classes.

The rot started when the families owning the title sold out to Conrad Black. When the latter's businesses unwound, the Telegraph passed to the Barclay brothers. One can at least say of Black that he knew the newspaper business. Although the Barclays had been involved in newspaper ventures in the past (e.g. The European, whose objective reporting on continental matters they switched to an anti-EU stance) but their understanding of journalism was clearly lacking. Their management of the Telegraph has been marked by a series of gimmicky appointments, chronicled by Private Eye, which have improved neither its profitability nor, it seems, the morale of the journalists who remain. Now the most senior of them has jumped ship. On the Our Democracy web pages, Peter Oborne explains why.

His article deserves reading in full. He outlines the status of the paper when he joined and the decline in standards under a succession of editors (or "heads of content"), leading to blunders which would be ridiculed in a red-top tabloid. Worse, as the country's revulsion against big business corruption tops the domestic headlines, is the way that the demands of big advertisers has been seen to distort its presentation of the news.

It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.
Late last year I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. "It’s like having your water cut off," one victim told me.
When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that "there is a bit of an issue" with HSBC. Eventually I gave up in despair and offered the article toopenDemocracy. It can be read here.
[There follows detail of further spiked stories about HSBC]
The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year theTelegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.
The paper’s comment on last year’s protests in Hong Kong was bizarre. One would have expected theTelegraph of all papers to have taken a keen interest and adopted a robust position. Yet (in sharp contrast to competitors like theTimes)I could not find a single leader on the subject.
At the start of December the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian all wrote powerful leaders on the refusal by the Chinese government to allow a committee of British MPs into Hong Kong. The Telegraph remained silent. I can think of few subjects which anger and concern Telegraph readers more.
On 15 September the Telegraph published a commentary by the Chinese ambassador, just before the lucrative China Watch supplement. The headline of the ambassador’s article was beyond parody: ‘Let’s not allow Hong Kong to come between us’. On 17 September there was a four-page fashion pull-out in the middle of the news run, granted more coverage than the Scottish referendum. The Tesco false accounting story on 23 September was covered only in the business section. By contrast it was the splash, inside spread and leader in the Mail. Not that the Telegraph is short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging £10m to fight cancer, an inside peak at Tesco’s £35m jet and ‘Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years’ were all deemed newsworthy.
Peter Oborne is an extremely scrupulous writer. (His books on Basil d'Oliveira and Pakistani cricket which I prize testify to that.) His observations on the state of the Telegraph may therefore not be dismissed as facile or unfounded. The management of the paper is beginning to look like the bridge of the Costa Concordia.

See also

No comments: