Telegraph's response to Oborne/HSBC row does not go far enough - journalists need protection from commercial pressure

The Telegraph’s punchy leader column today – with a promise “to follow the facts without fear or favour” – is a welcome public response to the Peter Oborne/HSBC row.

Also welcome is the pledge to bring in new guidelines on the way journalists and commercial staff work together.

But fine words, as they say, butter no parsnips. And the Telegraph is going to need to take action if it is to see off the worst threat to a UK national newspaper’s credibility since the hacking scandal and subsequent mass arrests of tabloid journalists.

Where the Telegraph leader falls down is that it makes no admission that mistakes may have been made.

The Telegraph says in today's leader that recent coverage of the HSBC scandal was en editorial judgment, nothing more.

The Telegraph says it has shown less "enthusiasm" than its rivals for reports that HSBC has been helping its Swiss bank account customers dodge tax because of its "belief in free enterprise and free markets". 

But even if we put last week's coverage of HSBC to one side, there has clearly been a problem at the Telegraph which needs to be addressed.

Press Gazette has spoken to several figures with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Telegraph who backed up Oborne’s claims that commercial concerns have had too much influence over editorial. They all said the problem extends beyond HSBC to other major advertisers.

The BBC said it spoke to more than a dozen serving and former Telegraph staff who similarly backed up Oborne’s claims.

The new promised guidelines are welcome, but they don’t go far enough. The Telegraph says:

We are drawing up guidelines that will define clearly and openly how our editorial and commercial staff will co-operate in an increasingly competitive media industry, particularly in digital publishing, an area whose journalistic and commercial importance can only grow.

When Telegraph chief executive Murdoch MacLennan testified under oath before the Leveson Inquiry in 2011 he said:

As a preliminary point, it is important to understand the division between the newspaper’s commercial and editorial teams. It is a "church and state" relationship, at the heart of which lies editorial independence. Whilst the editorial team are all aware of, and engaged with, the strategic development of the business, for example the development and performance of the Telegraph’s multi-media platforms, the editor decides what is published even though that decision is taken in compliance with the letter and spirit of the Editors’ Code of Practice

MacLennan now needs to demonstrate how that pledge is being kept.

An independent inquiry by a Telegraph grandee, such as former editor Charles Moore, could find out the extent to which editorial independence has been allowed to slip and demonstrate to readers that the Telegraph takes Oborne's allegations seriously. In future the Telegraph needs to ensure that journalists who feel they are being lent on by the commercial team have a clear set of rules they can defend themselves with and a senior independent figure who they can appeal to.

As news organisations struggle harder and harder to turn a buck, commercial pressure on editorial is an issue for the whole journalism industry.

The travails of the Telegraph this week show that there is no quicker way for a newspaper brand to self-destruct than by losing its reputation for putting the interests of readers (rather than advertisers) first.

That’s why it would be in the whole industry's interests for the Editors’ Code to be changed to provide journalists with protection from commercial pressure.

At  present there is nothing in the Code to stop the sort of abuses which have been alleged at the Telegraph.

So a journalist who comes under pressure to tone down a story to please an advertiser (or add a positive mention of them) has nowhere to turn. They can call the Whistleblowers’ Hotline of the Independent Press Standards Organisation if they like, but they are likely to be told: ‘Sorry, we can’t uphold a rule that isn’t in the Editors’ Code’.

The Advertising Standards Association is also sadly toothless in this area.

In 2012, the editors of both the Daily Express and Daily Star decided to publish front page stories on the news that the their owner – Richard Desmond – had decided to launch the Health Lottery.

The ASA rejected a complaint saying that editorial content was outside its remit.

Two years ago, the Editors’ Code Committee (led by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre) launched a review of the Code in response to the Leveson Inquiry.

We have heard nothing since while we wait for the body to recruit its promised new non-industry members.

When the new Code Committee finally meets it should consider a short addition to the rules journalists work by to state that it will be considered a breach of the code for an editor to alter editorial coverage as a result of commercial considerations.

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