Last week, Peter Oborne resigned as chief political commentator at the Telegraph, writing:
‘The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers.’
And yet Oborne is no radical. He describes how, five years ago, he was invited to join the newspaper:
‘It was a job I was very proud to accept. The Telegraph has long been the most important conservative-leaning newspaper in Britain, admired as much for its integrity as for its superb news coverage.’
Our perception is very different. Whenever we have researched media reaction to the West’s numerous wars, bombing campaigns and other ‘interventions’, the Telegraph’s position has been wearily predictable. We know, even before we fire up the Lexis newspaper search engine, what the Telegraph’s response will be to government claims that ‘we’ need to ‘intervene’ in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq (again). See here.
Worse still, the Telegraph has the ugliest record of all UK media on arguably the most important issue of our time – the business-led suppression of the truth of imminent climate disaster. Research on climate scepticism published in the journal Environmental Communication found:
‘The Express and the Telegraph accounted for over half the articles with skeptical voices within them (43 out of 79)… the Telegraph had the highest presence of skeptical voices of any newspaper at 13%.’
Oborne, by contrast, perceives ‘a formidable tradition of political commentary’ in a newspaper that ‘is confident of its own values’. The Telegraph explains:
‘Foremost among those values is a belief in free enterprise and free markets. We are proud to be the champion of British business and enterprise.’
This leaves Oborne’s view far behind, taking us closer to US journalist Glenn Greenwald’s description of the UK media as ‘corrosive, shallow, herd-like and gross’.
Oborne began his criticism of the Telegraph by lambasting the publishing of a story, known to be false, about ‘a woman with three breasts’, included because it would boost ‘the number of online visits’. But he went far beyond the problem of silly ‘churnalism’:
‘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.’
‘It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.’
‘From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph… HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”.’
And so, naturally enough:
‘Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately 12 months. Executives say that [Telegraph Media Group CEO] Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. “He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,” says one former Telegraph journalist. “Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.”‘
Crucially, Oborne made ‘a second and even more important point that bears not just on the fate of one newspaper but on public life as a whole’:
‘It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here. The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media.’
As we will see, this ‘second and even more important point’ has been almost completely ignored by journalists commenting on Oborne’s resignation.
In reviewing Oborne’s exposé in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins waxed poetical:
‘Newspapers are institutionalised hypocrisy. They excoriate yet they cringe. They speak truth to power and then sup at its table. They stick their moral noses in the air while their bottoms rest on festering heaps of deals, perks, bribes and ads, without which they would not exist.’
Despite this, offering no evidence, Jenkins concluded:
‘The most amazing thing is that this murky edifice has delivered Britain a remarkably robust and free-spirited press.’
Jenkins portrays newspaper executives as hypocrites who cringe before power. But this misses the point: corporate media do not sup at the table of power; they are power. Their ‘bottoms’ do not ‘rest on festering heaps’ of perks, bribes and adverts; they rest on a bottom-line of maximised profit.
Jenkins described Oborne as ‘a maverick’, a media scare word indicating that someone is to be viewed as an oddball – interesting, well-intentioned, but unrealistic. (In the Guardian, Michael White described Oborne as a ‘romantic’) Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, George Galloway and Glenn Greenwald are all frequently described as ‘mavericks’.
Like Oborne, Jenkins slipped in and out of consciousness on corporate structural bias:
‘An American newspaper is said to have carried the ironic motto “As independent as resources permit”. Any student of the press knows what this means. A business page protocol ordains gentle treatment of proprietorial interests. Fashion pages would not exist without kickbacks, or travel pages without “contra” deals on hospitality and mentions. I remember perfume firms threatening to withdraw ads after stories on animal cruelty.’
The deeper problem, ignored by Jenkins, is that this corporate structure not only trims individual stories, it excludes entire frameworks of understanding. If writing something disagreeable about HSBC or animal rights is problematic, imagine editors consistently presenting corporate domination as a threat to human survival in an age of climate change. Indeed, because such a position is unimaginable in corporate media 70 per cent dependent on corporate advertising, Oborne and Jenkins are unable to perceive that it is effectively being spiked. They cannot notice the absence of ideational frameworks they are unable to conceive! But these are spiked, not on the editor’s desk, not even at conception, but by the uniform assumptions of journalists employed by a system that of course selects for corporate conformity: ‘You say what you like, because they like what you say.’
Activist comedian Frankie Boyle supplied some much-needed light relief when he noticed the perfect irony of the adverts encroaching on this passage in Jenkins’ article:
‘Page layouts are “bastardised” by wraparounds. Ill-shapen ads jut into editorial space, a once unthinkable concession to ad managers. I cringe when I see “sponsored content” supplements full of “advertorial”.’
And also here.
Jenkins managed to accept that ‘Even the Guardian cannot be regarded as immune from such pressures… Any loss-making journal is at the mercy of its paymasters, be they the state, commerce, philanthropy or individuals.’ His solution:
‘The best guarantor of editorial integrity remains an organisation stable enough to protect its staff and their work from the tempests of the marketplace – including advertisers.’
But corporate media are the marketplace – they are profit-oriented business selling ‘Truth’ to a world dominated by themselves and their corporate allies in the interests of the 0.1%. Jenkins concluded:
‘There is no question that the private sector is an insecure way of financing a free press that does not make money. But all other ways are worse.’
No doubt the political activists in Syriza and Podemos could have thought the same. Perhaps Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias should have worked for change within the existing system, perhaps joining the ‘mainstream’ Spanish PSOE or PP parties. But actually the public does have power and resources, and they can be tapped to achieve change without cosying up to corporate power.
‘The Guardian… is truly independent because it is owned by a trust rather than a group of wealthy men.’
In the real world, Guardian Media Group is owned by The Scott Trust Limited, which is run by an elite group of individuals from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising, multinational consumer goods, telecommunications, information technology, venture investment, media, marketing services and so on. Unsurprisingly, then, Greenslade’s willingness to recognise key aspects of media reality falls below that even of Oborne and Jenkins. His key lesson learned:
‘The implication of Oborne’s revelations is that part of [the Telegraph’s] strategy involves pandering to big advertisers to the extent of curbing critical editorial content.
‘I imagine this is rare’, although ‘other instances may have occurred that we know nothing about.’
This, again, is a stunningly self-censored view of the problem of profit-oriented Big Business media selling Truth in a world dominated by Big Business.
Commenting in the Guardian, Archie Bland failed to perceive almost any wider implications for the honesty of a corporate ‘free press’. Guardian associate editor Michael White also had nothing to add on corporate censorship in his short comment piece on Oborne – no anecdotes, stories or reflections from his long media career. In the Independent, founder and former editor Andreas Whittam-Smith offered a splendid opening line:
‘The most serious charge any business can face is that of defrauding its customers.’
Again, remarkably, a profession ostensibly devoted to telling the truth about the world is presented, without irony, as just another business. No conflict of interest is perceived between truth-telling and the distorting influence of corporate profit-making.
Whittam-Smith responded to the claim that there is a long history of advertisers effecting editorial at the Telegraph:
‘Not in my experience. I worked there as a financial journalist in the late 1960s and again in the early 1980s. As financial advertising is valuable, had there been any undue pressure, I would have known about it. It didn’t happen.’
Obviously, nobody needs to tell the likes of Whittam-Smith what not to write.
It could hardly be more obvious that these corporate journalists are simply not willing or able to perceive even the most basic conflicts of interest afflicting the corporate ‘free press’. In fact, their analyses are prime examples of the problem they are ignoring.
The trick of the media reviewers of Oborne’s whistleblowing has been to focus on the ‘bad apple’ Telegraph, or at best on single, specific problems such as advertising and ownership. Thus Greenslade:
‘Newspaper proprietorship gives unaccountable rights to owners. For once, the Barclays are being held to account.’
By happy coincidence, the Guardian is thus exonerated. For, as we have seen, it is ‘truly independent because it is owned by a trust rather than a group of wealthy men’.
Leftists – The Corporate Media’s Thin Red Line
‘You’re not just an old war horse complaining that times have changed?’
This recalled cynical Blairite criticism of principled opponents as ‘old fashioned’, people who refused to ‘modernise’. The theme was even repeated:
‘Are you a lone voice? Are you sort of the last of the old Telegraph simply complaining about the new?’
An intriguing feature of the Oborne exposé has been the way right-wing journalists like Oborne and Jenkins are producing more honest media analysis than self-declared ‘leftists’ like Snow. This accords with our own experience: the fiercest opponents of our work, the ultimate liberal gatekeepers, have always been the dissident figleaves. In the Guardian, Owen Jones wrote boldly:
‘The day the Guardian stops covering tax avoidance is the day I resign’
Notice that Jones did not write, ‘The day the Guardian stops me covering tax avoidance is the day I resign.’ We responded:
‘So you think the Guardian is free of the kinds of conflicts of interest Oborne describes? But are you free to comment?’
‘Why would you resign over tax justice but not consistent “R2P” [‘responsibility to protect’] warmongering? Why is that more important?’
Jones now changed tack:
‘the Guardian has repeatedly given me space to denounce wars in Iraq and Libya. There is no censorship’
We reminded him:
‘No, you said you’d resign, “If Guardian refused to cover tax avoidance”. So why not resign over warmongering on Iraq, Libya..?’
‘As long as it doesn’t force *me* to soft pedal or censor me. Not understood Oborne’s resignation have you?’
That this was a radical shift from Jones’ initial declaration on Guardian performance appeared to escape him.
In an article on Oborne, Jones wrote of his employer:
‘What about the Guardian? The paper is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul… I have never been prevented from writing what I think.’
Alas, as even his own boss, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, told one of us in an interview in 2000:
‘If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch”, or whoever, “never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood.’
Nobody has to tell Jones not to explore the key role of the liberal press in the corporate capture of New Labour, in the series of crimes known as ‘responsibility to protect’, and in normalising the terminal pathology of mass consumerism.
The Guardian’s George Monbiot also tweeted a link to Oborne’s exposé. We asked him:
‘Oborne: “It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here.” What about conflicts of interest elsewhere, Guardian included?’
Like Jones, Monbiot heroically leapt to the defence of his employer:
‘Now try reading his article. “All newspaper groups, bar magnificent exception of the Guardian, maintained a culture of omerta”‘
We pointed out that Oborne was specifically referring in this sentence to the Guardian’s ‘magnificent’ performance on phone hacking and that he immediately went on to warn of ‘the rise of shadowy executives…across the mainstream media‘ (our emphasis). We asked Monbiot if this was not also a problem at the Guardian. He deflected our question:
‘Why don’t you ask him? Or would that spoil the satisfaction of reading into his words what you want to see?’
He wrote again:
‘if you have an example of the Guardian spiking a story on behalf of its advertisers, please send me a link.’
Two days later, the Telegraph published just such an allegation:
‘A Guardian insider said that the headline of an article about Iraq on The Guardian’s website was changed amid concerns about offending Apple, and the article was later removed from the home page entirely.
‘The insider said: “If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified.”‘
This is not the first time Monbiot has crudely dismissed challenges of this kind. Former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, tweeted Monbiot last December:
‘Guardian, your employer, is precisely part of media problem. Why this argument is far from waste of energy. It’s vital.’
‘that’s your view. I don’t share it. Most of my work exposing corporate power has been through or with the Guardian.’
As we saw above, the following day, even Jenkins put Monbiot’s apologetics to shame with his admission that the Guardian, also, of course, is afflicted by the same conflicts of interest at work at the Telegraph.
In response to Oborne’s very credible and serious accusations, former Independent editor, Simon Kelner, offered a stirring defence of free speech, commenting: ‘while this story is of interest and some importance within a small(ish) radius, the real world, I’m sad to report, is full of compromise’. Which again recalled Greenwald:
‘The UK media actually makes the US media look like independent-minded, iconoclastic dissenters against power #HerdAnimals’
In a free society, Oborne’s courageous whistleblowing would have triggered a wide-ranging debate on how profit-seeking media owned and run by a tiny elite, dependent on corporate advertisers, subsidised by state and corporate ‘news’, obviously produce a vision of the world in which corporate domination is viewed as ‘just how things are’. The astonishing, hidden story of the vast corporate campaigns to stifle political choice, to subvert democracy, control culture and even to brainwash children, would have poured forth. Instead, heads bowed, journalists focused on ‘maverick’ Oborne, on isolated problems at the Telegraph, on the specific problem of advertising, and on defending their employers. The truth, as ever, was not a concern.