'Emotionally exhausted' Peter Oborne condemns 'contemptible silence' of Barclay brothers

Ordinarily, the resignation of an aggrieved senior journalist from a newspaper would make a story for Press Gazette and gain little coverage elsewhere. But Peter Oborne's outspoken departure from the Telegraph, and his attack on the newspaper group's editorial integrity, made the front page of The Guardian, has featured in several other national newspapers over two days, and has seen the journalist appear on Channel 4 News and Radio 4's Today programme. 

It makes thinking up new questions, and finding new angles on his resignation, more challenging than it otherwise might have been. But here’s a Press Gazette exclusive (guaranteed, because Oborne says he only just remembered it): This is not the first time he has left The Daily Telegraph in “acrimonious” circumstances with no job to go on to.

The first occasion was nearly 30 years ago. The Cambridge graduate’s journalism career started – after a few years in the City where he “wasn’t any good… just a sort of liability” – at Robert Maxwell’s now-defunct Financial Weekly magazine as a 27-year-old in the mid-1980s. Oborne recalls that he moved on to Max Hastings’ Daily Telegraph as chief City reporter, via the Evening Standard, in 1987. He lasted just a few months. 

“That was a disaster,” he says. “I left The Daily Telegraph – I think I was sacked, although you could argue I resigned – in 1987, I think… I found it very hard, or impossible even, to get on. It doesn’t really matter, but I couldn’t flourish in that environment."

Laughing, he adds: “I had completely forgotten this – it’s not the first time I’ve left The Daily Telegraph without a job!”

He doesn't go in to more detail, but says: "It wasn’t a matter of principle or anything, it was just a parting of the ways.”

At this stage, Oborne “crawled back” to the City pages of the Evening Standard initially on a shift basis, working under the “glorious” City editor Anthony Hilton. 

Was financial reporting a good grounding for his later work in political journalism? “In a way,” Oborne says. “I still wish I’d worked for a local paper, and really cut my teeth on a local rag. I never had that experience because I came in so late. 

“On the other hand, economics and finance are so important if you want to understand the world. Things like the great crash of 2008 or the Eurozone crisis, I felt confident writing about those subjects as a result of my experience.”

He was asked to move across to the Standard’s political team in 1992 by then editor Paul Dacre. 

Here, he had an “incredible slice of luck”, being based in Room 10 of the lobby with “heroic figures” including: The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh and Simon Walters (who he telephoned during this interview to confirm the names), his Standard political editor Charles Reiss (who was “endlessly kind” and “I owe my career to”), David Rose of the Liverpool Post, Channel 4 News’s Elinor Goodman, Scottish freelance Gordon Campbell, the Glasgow Herald’s Catherine Macleod, the East Anglian Daily Times’s Chris Fisher, The Mail on Sunday’s Peter Dobby, Ian Hernon and Nick Comfort.

He describes this four years as the “formative period of my career” and it resulted in him being headhunted – along with Walters – by Sue Douglas to join the Sunday Express in 1996. 

“I was always a pretty dreadful reporter,” he says. ”And this was the moment I was able to start being a political columnist rather than a reporter.

“I just about managed to pull it off as a reporter, but I wasn’t naturally gifted. I found it much easier to write political columns than write political stories.”

He stayed at the Sunday Express until 2001, leaving “shortly after dirty – Mr Desmond – arrived”. He points out that, contrary to a recent Guardian report, he was given a “generous voluntary redundancy payment” and did not leave Express Newspapers in the same principled way as his colleague Tony Bevins.

“And by chance, which was a very fortunate coincidence, I was rung up by Boris Johnson at roughly that time and asked to become political columnist on the Spectator.”

What was Johnson like as an editor? “Wonderful. I’ve never been professionally happier than I was in those four years working on Boris Johnson’s Spectator. It was glorious fun,” he adds, describing the “Black Rod affair” – when No 10 made a complaint, later withdrawn, to the Press Complaints Commission over claims PM Tony Blair had tried to “muscle in” on the Queen Mother’s funeral – as the highlight. “That was a bracing week or two.”

After the Barclay brothers bought the title in 2004, Oborne was again approached by Dacre in 2006, this time to become a Daily Mail columnist  – “it was about time I left anyway”.

How did life at the Mail compare to the Spectator? “You’re treated well as a columnist at the Mail… I was very well looked after.” During this period, Oborne also started doing more work on documentaries.

He was approached by Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher in 2010 and asked to become chief political commentator, the position he has now resigned from.

Asked when his feelings for the Telegraph began to sour, Oborne says: “It was a slow process.”

He says he first raised concerns with chief executive Murdoch MacLennan three years ago, and then again when he bumped into him at Margaret Thatcher’s 2013 funeral.

In September 2013, Jason Seiken was made Telegraph editor-in-chief and Gallagher was sacked in January last year.

Over this period and up to this week, Private Eye ran a number of stories about the Telegraph which led to “mounting concern” for Oborne.

“I’m not sure I would have resigned but for reading these stories in Private Eye,” he says. “They drew attention to things I was unaware of… and, in fact, it was the main source of information for Telegraph journalists about what was going on in the paper.”

As “really outstanding journalists were being sacked” and “really gifted journalists were walking away”, Oborne had an “increasing feeling of discomfort”.

He says, “I had a choice [last autumn]. Whether I just looked for a job somewhere else, or whether I should try and fight and do something about it. And I decided I would try and do something about it.” 

In his Open Democracy article explaining his departure, Oborne spoke of his Telegraph-reading grandfather, Lt Col Tom Oborne DSO, and how he thought of him when writing columns. Oborne says he also thought of him when deciding to look further into goings-on at the Telegraph.

He says: “I started to investigate some of the Private Eye reports. And then I became aware that there was a sort of policy to HSBC of not publishing. And then it happened to me personally.” He explains that he could not get one of his columns for the Telegraph website published.

“At that point, I started to thoroughly investigate things,” he said. “I got more and more appalled by what I discovered. And on 2 December, I dispatched a long letter to Murdoch MacLennan explaining my grave concerns about the trajectory of events at the paper and handing in my notice.”

After exchanges with MacLennan and Aidan Barclay, Oborne was told his six-month notice period would be honoured, but that his column was being axed.

“I thought: Wow, I’ve got four months’ gardening leave,” he says. “And I then started to think how I would handle the issue of when it became known that I was leaving… 

“And I thought very deeply about this, and concluded in the end: If you go public you do damage to the paper, it will enable rivals to use that. If you go private, you don’t. You’ve done everything you can internally, which I had done, to raise the matters concerned. And I love the Telegraph, I really just couldn’t bear the thought of doing it damage and I have such enormous respect for so many of the writers on it. 

“I concluded, and told the Telegraph this – that if asked, if somebody rung me up, I would just say look I’m resigning, I’m not giving a reason.”

That was until last week, when reading the paper’s coverage of the HSBC scandal from Strasbourg, at the European parliament.

“I decided I just couldn’t remain silent.”

He then set about writing the Open Democracy piece. One of the hardest parts, he says, was sending an email to the Telegraph explaining what he was doing and offering the opportunity of reply. 

“I have to say that writing that letter, which told the Telegraph what I was doing, pushing the button on that… I missed the button a few times. I found that a very traumatic thing to do.”

Numerous high-profile journalists have left the Telegraph in recent months, but no others have gone out in the same way as Oborne. Why was he different? “People have all kinds of reasons for acting as they do,” he says.

“My initial decision was not to make a noise. I have an enormous respect for the professionalism and integrity of the hardworking writers and editors and sub-editors and people who work for the Telegraph. I do not have the same respect for the management."

Oborne singles out chief executive Murdoch MacLennan for particular criticism, and adds: “The Barclay brothers have not shown the paper the love and understanding which all newspapers need from their proprietors. And I would like to ask the Barclay brothers either to completely reverse their policy towards the Telegraph – or better still sell it.”

He adds: “Because The Daily Telegraph is a great national institution. It’s one of the country’s greatest newspapers, it stands for a part of Britain which doesn’t get a voice elsewhere, it’s got a fabulous history. And I just say to the Barclay bothers: Do they want to be remembered for having destroyed The Daily Telegraph? Because that’s what they’re doing. I also say to them: Their silence is becoming contemptible… They must answer the charges that are being made against them."

"Emotionally exhausted" after days of emails from friends and media requests, Oborne is travelling to Pakistan for the Lahore literary festival tonight. 

Asked if he has any work lined up for when he returns, he says: “Honestly, I’ve put all of those thoughts out of my mind. I deliberately didn’t think about that matter, and I’m still not thinking about it.”

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