Written by Robert Jones
As it has done so frequently in recent history, the ugly side of print journalism has reared its head once again. Over the past few weeks several voices within the press have, perhaps unintentionally, managed to detract all attention away from one of the biggest UK financial scandals since LIBOR rigging. Shortly after its explosion as a major news story the HSBC tax avoidance scandal was set upon by ex-Daily Telegraph Chief Political Commentator Peter Oborne as a springboard to accuse his former employer of allowing commercial partners to influence the quantity and placement of reputation damaging coverage within the paper (Open Democracy, 17th February). The exposé may not have come as much of a surprise to many but the key difference between Oborne’s piece and the shower of self-righteous editorials in other publications that followed it was the simple fact that it acknowledged that such corporate interference is an industry-wide practice.
In the days following The Guardian jumped on the Oborne bandwagon seeing it as an opportunity to humiliate its conservative rival. A leading article was published detailing everything Oborne had to throw at his former employer minus the admission that they themselves were also probably guilty of allowing commercial partners to influence news output (Guardian, 18th February). The Times followed suit with a further irresponsible attack on The Telegraph.
Both attacks paved the way for a potentially unfounded and possibly libellous retaliation from the Telegraph who plastered their front page with dangerous claims that the owners of The Times had overworked its Commercial department staff to the point where two had taken their own lives (Telegraph, 20th February). In the same issue editors subtly threw a low blow back at The Guardian accusing them of hypocrisy in allowing Apple to influence the content of a Iraq war piece which can only be seen as a prime example of ‘pot calling the kettle black’ (Telegraph, 20th February).
The unnecessary spite and vehemence of the Telegraph’s response however seems almost insignificant however by comparison to the unintelligence of The Guardian editors and co. who should have seen the hypocrisy accusations coming from the off. The entire fiasco has seemed to have served no one and once again put into question our faith in print media. Peter Oborne and readers of the Telegraph have every right to be angry, but in fairness the rest of the print media were blatantly uncalculated in their self-righteous response to Oborne’s accusations. If anything though, the fiasco should raise the question of press freedom.
The bottom line for The Daily Telegraph, like any other corporation, is its profit margins. I would never excuse their coverage (or moreover, lack of it), their overzealous response to criticism nor their pandering to big money advertisers but their primary duty is unfortunately to its shareholders, not its readers. At its core the issue of press freedom revolves around this apparent paradox that our free press may in fact not be the champion of free social democracy we see it to be. Business interests’ influence over news coverage is an alarming, but unsurprising, demonstration of how blatantly incompatible liberal democratic systems and capitalism can be.
I believe however that we should consider ourselves lucky. If one paper, for whatever reason chooses not to publish a story deemed to be in the public interest you can almost always guarantee that the very same story, if big enough, will be broken by any number of other rival publications (as was the case with the HSBC tax scandal). Our free press as an industry is not a united body, by its very nature no one faction of it has a monopoly of influence, it is a competitive smorgasbord of competing rival voices. Therefore what does it matter to The Guardian and others that The Daily Telegraph failed to publish anything of any significance on the HSBC scandal when the truth is that nobody with any knowledge of how the free press funds itself would be surprised that a newspaper could be so restrained by its commercial partners?
The public’s right to know about HSBC’s tax setup was fulfilled when it was disclosed by BBC Panorama, The Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to name but a few. I can only hope now that if loyal Telegraph readers were in anyway disappointed or left in the dark then they will in future they consider getting their news from multiple outlets.
All I would expect however is for readers to not let our press establishment wither on the vine. It may be a dirty industry but with a significant lack of any real competition between the alternative of rolling TV news channels, it’s a industry which needs to be saved. The press may pander to big money advertisers but at least all its factions don’t pander to just one investor so uniformly. Ultimately this leaves me in a very confused position, for all its morally questionable practices, sensationalism and pandering to private enterprise I cannot even begin to suggest that the press should be anything other than self-regulated: it’s a shame but I can accept the press only for what it is, all its faults accounted for, and not for what it could, or should, be.