The corporate media have swiftly moved on from Peter Oborne’s resignation as chief political commentator at the Telegraph and his revelations that the paper had committed ‘a form of fraud’ on its readers over its coverage of HSBC tax evasion.
But investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed has delved deeper into the HSBC scandal, reporting the testimony of a whistleblower that reveals a ‘conspiracy of silence’ encompassing the media, regulators and law-enforcement agencies. Not least, Ahmed’s work exposes the vanity of the Guardian’s boast to be the world’s ‘leading liberal voice’.
Last month, the corporate media, with one notable exception, devoted extensive coverage to the news that the Swiss banking arm of HSBC had been engaged in massive fraudulent tax evasion. The exception was the Telegraph which, as Oborne revealed, was desperate to retain advertising income from HSBC.
But now Ahmed reports another ‘far worse case of HSBC fraud totalling an estimated £1 billion, closer to home’. Moreover, it has gone virtually unnoticed by the corporate media, for all the usual reasons.
According to whistleblower Nicholas Wilson, HSBC was ‘involved in a fraudulent scheme to illegally overcharge British shoppers in arrears for debt on store cards at leading British high-street retailers’ including B&Q, Dixons, Currys, PC World and John Lewis. Up to 600,000 Britons were defrauded.
Wilson uncovered the crimes while he was head of debt recovery for Weightmans, a firm of solicitors acting on behalf of John Lewis. But when he blew the whistle, his employer sacked him. He has spent 12 years trying to expose this HSBC fraud and to help obtain justice for the victims. The battle has ‘ruined his life’, he said during a brief appearance on the BBC’s The Big Questions, the only ‘mainstream’ coverage to date.
Ahmed writes that the ‘most disturbing’ aspect of ‘HSBC’s fraud against British consumers’ is that it ‘has been systematically ignored by the entire British press’.
‘In some cases, purportedly brave investigative journalism outfits have spent months investigating the story, preparing multiple drafts, before inexplicably spiking publication without reason.’
Examples include BBC Panorama, BBC Newsnight, BBC Moneybox, BBC Radio 5 Live, the Guardian, Private Eye and the Sunday Times.
The Sunday Times is the most recent example. A couple of weeks ago, the paper had a big exposé on the HSBC consumer credit fraud ready to go. But it was ‘inexplicably dropped’ at the last minute. Ahmed writes:
‘HSBC happens to be the main sponsor of a series of Sunday Times league tables published for FastTrack 100 Ltd., a “networking events company.” The bank is the “title sponsor” of The Sunday Times HSBC Top Track 100, has been “title sponsor of The Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200 for all 6 years” and was previously “title sponsor of The Sunday Times Top Track 250 for 7 years.”‘
Ahmed reports that the Sunday Times journalist preparing the spiked story did not respond to a query asking for an explanation.
The World’s ‘Leading Liberal Voice’… Loses Its Voice
But surely the Guardian would go where other papers fear to tread? After all, says Ahmed, the paper:
‘loudly and triumphantly congratulated itself for reporting on the HSBC Swiss bank scandal despite the bank putting its advertising relationship with the newspaper “on pause.” Yet the newspaper has refused to cover Wilson’s story exposing HSBC fraud in Britain. Why?’
Perhaps there is no definitive answer to that question. But as Ahmed points out, the Guardian just ‘happens to be the biggest recipient of HSBC advertising revenue: bigger even than the Telegraph’, which is ‘something you won’t read in the Guardian’. The Guardian’s ‘partnership’ with HSBC even helped fund the paper’s crucial move into the US market, according to the Guardian Media Group’s financial report last year.
However, the Guardian’s links with HSBC go beyond advertising and extend to the very corporate structure of the newspaper. As Media Lens noted when we wrote about Nafeez Ahmed’s sacking from the Guardian last December, the paper’s journalistic freedom is supposedly secured under the auspices of Scott Trust Limited, the company that replaced the much-vaunted Scott Trust in 2008. We added:
‘The paper, therefore, might not at first sight appear to be a corporate institution. But the paper is owned by the Guardian Media Group which is run by a high-powered Board comprising elite, well-connected people from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising… and other sectors of big business, finance and industry.’
Ahmed has done further extensive digging, revealing, in particular, the Guardian’s specific corporate ties with HSBC, past and present. For instance, the chair of the Scott Trust Ltd board is Dame Liz Forgan. She has links with St Giles Trust and the British Museum, two institutions that are ‘sponsored’ by HSBC.
Consider, too, Anthony Salz who sits alongside Forgan on Scott Trust Ltd. He is a senior investment banker and executive vice chairman of Rothschild, and a director at NM Rothschild and Sons. Salz was previously a corporate lawyer with Freshfields, a member of the ‘Magic Circle’ of elite British law firms. HSBC is one of Freshfield’s most prominent long-term clients.
Philip Tranter is another board member of Scott Trust Ltd. He is a former partner and head of corporate law at Boyes Turner. HSBC is one of their clients.
As well as past and present relationships with HSBC, there are also wider connections between Scott Trust Ltd board members and elite corporate and financial circles. For example, Jonathan Scott is chairman of Ambac Assurance UK, and a former director at KPMG Corporate Finance. Ambac was ‘at the heart of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, and was implicated in fraud to save its skin as the crisis kicked off’.
Andrew Miller, another board member, was chief financial officer of Autotrader publisher, Trader Media Group. Until early last year, TMG was jointly owned by the Guardian Media Group and the giant private equity firm, Apax Partners. One early director of an Apax Fund, David Staples, is now a director of HSBC Private Bank Ltd. When the Guardian Media Group sold its 50.1% stake in TMG, one of the firms that provided advice for the sale was Anthony Salz’s former firm, Freshfields. Freshfields also advised HSBC over a government inquiry into competition in the banking sector last year.
And so it goes on… and on. Far from being some kind of benign charitable operation, the Guardian newspaper is deeply embedded in elite networks of corporate and financial muscle.
Ahmed notes the consequences of all this for Guardian journalism. The company board members running the newspaper:
‘must juggle the task of operating the Guardian “as a profit-seeking enterprise,” while securing its “financial and editorial independence” — goals that as the HSBC case illustrates, are ultimately mutually incompatible.’
He summarises Nicholas Wilson’s revelations on HSBC fraud in Britain as ‘the worst and largest single case of banking fraud to have ever emerged in this country. They make the Swiss leaks case look like peanuts.’
And yet the fraud has been entirely ignored by the ‘free press’. Our searches of the Lexis newspaper database yield not a single article. In particular, there has been no corporate media response to Ahmed’s careful investigative journalism since his article was published on March 2. ‘Even’ the Guardian, the supposed ‘flagship’ of liberal journalism, has looked away.
We would challenge Alan Rusbridger, the outgoing Guardian editor-in-chief (he will replace Forgan as the chair of the Scott Trust Ltd in 2016). But he hasn’t responded to our emails for years and he has long blocked us on Twitter. Perhaps this is because he finally tired of us highlighting examples of his paper’s propaganda role as a ‘guardian of power’. The last straw for Rusbridger appeared to follow our exposure of the paper’s dishonest attempts to smear Noam Chomsky in 2005.
However, when one of our readers challenged Rusbridger this week that he felt ‘conned’ that the Guardian is actually owned by a company and not a trust, Rusbridger did reply – although rather evasively:
‘It looks, swims, quacks and acts like a Trust. But, no, it’s not a charity. Nor does it hv anytg to do w HSBC’
‘Nor does it have anything to do with HSBC’? To put it kindly, it would appear that the Guardian editor-in-chief is ignorant of the HSBC links of his fellow company board members, as spelled out in Ahmed’s piece.
Ahmed himself then directly challenged Rusbridger via Twitter:
‘[email protected] great that guardian covered #SwissLeaks. Why ignore bigger story of £1bn #HSBC fraud in UK? https://medium.com/@NafeezAhmed/death-drugs-and-hsbc-355ed9ef5316‘
At the time of writing, Rusbridger has not responded.
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor-in-chief
Email: [email protected]