Peter Oborne, Hannen Swaffer and our ‘surprise’ at how the corporate world works…

So, what to make of the Oborne resignation from the Telegraph? Is it really news that some advertisers exert excessive influence over newspapers? It’s certainly something journalists don’t like to think about, or admit in public.

It’s messy to say the least. Much of what he says, I recognise as the decline of newspapers in general. In the two years I worked at the Telegraph whole tranches of staff were starting ‘let go’ with more and more of the desks being left unoccupied. The subs were the first to go.

I left a year before Oborne came in, so I imagine the change has continued apace, and the distress amongst some has deepened.

It’s not good for the Telegraph (which has a properly earned record for good and accurate news telling) that one of its now former top men believes its cowtowing to pressure from advertisers.

One problem with Oborne’s revelations is that for the most part, it’s just an opinion. Unsurprising, when opinion rather than news is exactly why he was engaged in the first place. Moreover, it is largely an opinion based on the reading of one or two stories.

As John Lloyd notes in his great essay What the media are doing to our politics, Richard Reeves described Watergate as:

…the signal event in the self destructive journalistic hubris in the 1970’s and beyond… reporters took on priestly duties of the political establishment… carelessly and systematically diminished politicians and governors, subjecting them to public scorn. Our message to them was simple: “They’re all bums! Don’t listen to them! Don’t believe them!”

Oborne’s Triumph of the Political Class is a long and sustained low note which rails against anyone and almost everyone currently acting within the political arena, the gist of it passably well summarised in this short segment from that once best selling book:

Voters put their MPs into Parliament to represent their interests, and articulate their anger, not to form part of a comfortable club, or to collude with opposition parties. This manifestation of elite rule has sprung into existence only over the last few decades, and amounts to a denial of democracy.

Anger? Is that really the role of MPs, or indeed of journalists? Of much greater democratic concern is that not that the populus be whipped into anger and outrage but that our institutions (democratic and otherwise) are actually accountable in the way they often pretend to be, but in actuality aren’t.

Andrew Smith in The Guardian nails the substantive problem here:

How does one explain a case like that of Dr Mattu, a thoroughly decent man and former high-flying cardiologist who raised the alarm about overcrowding in his wards, only to be forced out of the NHS and hounded by a troika of managers who conjured up 200 disciplinary and criminal charges against him – all of which were dismissed by professional bodies and three separate police forces?

Having looked in detail at this episode and spent time with Mattu, I have trouble understanding why his tormentors, who in trying to silence him cost the service between £6m and £10m, are mostly still walking the corridors of hospitals – including his ex-boss, David Loughton, who is reported to earn £400,000 a year as the chief executive of Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals NHS Trust.

He also notes that…

…the often shocking travails of whistleblowers are distributed well beyond the NHS, across all industries. What’s more, and this is key, their experiences are universally, uncannily similar in all contexts – from theNHS cardiologist Dr Raj Mattu and Bupa care worker Eileen Chubb to the HSBC whistleblower Hervé Falciani – who, after bravely revealing industrial-scale wrongdoing at the bank, found the authorities investigating him.

Accountability and poor reporting are to blame from the private sector to the public. From the shocking Rotherham affair to the underwriting of Greece’s finances before entering the Eurozone by big accountancy firms, there’s a disconnect between the noble lie and an ignoble reality.

As Tom Kelly has remarked, the situation has been neatly characterised in American fiction: “This is politics. Perception is everything. The truth won’t matter.” Throw another couple a mill at the problem, and for god’s sake keep them quiet?

Back to Oborne, anyone who works for a newspaper also takes on their political and at times commercial prejudices. If you work in harness, for  team and you take the money, it goes as read that the editor has last say on what goes out.

Most journos know where the line is, and they do pro-actively self censor. And if they don’t their editor will pull it for them. The “no worries Mr Chairman, that’s fine with me” was a rare public example of that sort of exchange out in the public domain.

Ed Moloney has also written well and convincingly on the self censorship attached to Peace Process in Northern Ireland.

But, as an old Daily Herald journalist Hannen Swaffer‘s once famously remarked that “freedom of the press … is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to”. It applies to almost every paper you can think of, and it has ever been thus.

There was never a time (as Mr Oborne seems to imagine) when the Daily Telegraph did not pander to the prejudice of its own elites, be they owners or corporate friends.

The value of a free press is not that it is objective or impartial (something of a corrosive myth), but that it is free and varied. What’s missing these days is a captive audience, and the untrammelled influence that that brings.

The problem is that anger is not the most effective response. Clear and fearless reporting of the detail as well as the broader narrative is what’s needed. Not just a Dylanesque rage, rage against the dying of the light


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  • Gingray

    Indeed so, a free press means the papers can get into bed with whomever they want, and live by any arrangements made.

    What about online? Slugger for example has received backing from niscreen that I know of (and prob not much) but would you take money from other groups with a similar agenda to your own and promote their message?

  • mickfealty

    Of course Gingray. We have been working with the Building Change Trust on exploring Open Government, we’ve had sponsorship from a number of companies like Stratagem, MCE and Chambre to run events.

    I would like to work with a lot more to be honest so we can get more applied work done. My problem with Peter’s fragile (and detail free) apprehensions is that it ignores rather than addresses the problem of who finances journalism, and how?

    But I also think it sparks other more interesting questions. Like what are we trying to do with journalism and related outcroppings like Blogs, FB pages, or Twitter feeds?

    My own sense is that whilst the walled garden model of journalism not quite yet busted, we do need to be thinking about how we can deploy (and make money from) other more open methods of tracking down what’s going on.

    And a methodology that is not based on endless antipathy between the ‘moral’ journo and the ‘immoral’ institution.. Such endless antipathy is mostly displacement of the energy need to figure how our complex institutions are structured never mind how they work.

    This is where I object to Oborne’s test of competitive politics or journalism as requiring the presence of anger. The ten minute council budget meeting is a much more concerning signal of democratic complacency.

    One of the reasons why the open government agenda interests me personally is that it suggests a different form of governance arrangement, and one in which institutions seek to engage practically and meaningfully with citizens.

    A signal that we might be getting there might be when our institutions welcome whistleblowers rather than seeking to isolate and publicly traduce them…

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And is the journalist’s role to speak truth unto power or to sell newspapers? And is the editor’s policy to toe a particular political line or to marginalise a big story because he may have capitulated to or is fearful of the advertisers/sponsors? Oborne’s objection is that this big story got minimal coverage not what the coverage contained.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Malcolm Redfellows’ blog (late of this parish) is always worth a visit for the literary content as wos Grumpy Old Bookman.

  • mickfealty

    Or if it cannot be honest, then a crust… 😉

  • terence patrick hewett

    I mourn the demise of the old MSM and it is almost entirely for cultural reasons. Those newspapers indulged themselves in what can be only described as high art.

    To paraphrase Michael Flanders: “O tempora, O mores – Oh Times! Oh Daily Mirror!” Newspapers were once the stamping ground of great wits and writers such as Michael Wharton, Brian O’Nolan, J B Morton and the incomparable Ivor Brown of the Observer. They caressed words as a lover because they were hopelessly in love with language: not for them the language of the student privy.

    Once newspapers were the hosts of brilliant cartoonists: Giles, Trog, Jak, Osbert Lancaster, Low et al. Where are their equivalent today? I can think of only one: Matt
    Pritchett of the DT.

    The apocryphal story of the conversation between JAK and the editor of the Evening Standard seems to sum it up.

    Mr Ed. was complaining that JAK earned ten times more than he the editor did. To which JAK replied “There are probably only five people in the country capable of
    turning out a high quality political cartoon of high-level graphical construction, five times a week, week in week out, for years. Any silly s*d can do your job”

  • Tacapall

    Peter Oborne probably resigned in the interests of his own personal security there has been many people who have fallen foul with the British establishment and didn’t live long to tell any tales. The story around the HSBC is much bigger than what is being released in the global media outlets. The sheer amount of money and criminality involved and the historical backgrounds of the HSBC investors would make exposing such criminality very dangerous indeed.

  • chrisjones2

    There are green lizards in my garden …well newts anyway

  • Tacapall

    Then maybe you should edit your post to

    “Tax Evasion scandals may have cost lives in London. Influential people may be involved”

  • mickfealty

    Tac, I think this is why I have big problems with Oborne’s vague and under detailed journalism.

    So I detail a case in which there is a fully documented conspiracy theory, which ignored for one that has no details at all.

    I’d love to know what drives that!

  • Tacapall

    “Maybe the London criminality is industrial scale”

    Have you never heard of the Ulster plantation or ever thought who actually owns all those tax havens like the City itself or places like the Isle of Man Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Jersey, Guernsey.

    Sorry John but any action as long as its peaceful and non violent that would results in a lost to the British exchequer by fellow Irishmen is fine by me if Mrs Windsor can be a parasite then so can we all.

  • Tacapall

    “Lord fink” Jez I’ll not sleep tonight worrying about that.

    So when are you and your party going to tackle publicly, tax evasion by yer woman Mrs Windsor and all those multinational global corporations that she represents that have carved out a wee tax haven for themselves in London ?

  • Tacapall

    “Knowing that it is coming out of her personal fortune is enough reward for me”

    Oh right and who gives a …. where the money comes from eh you should look up the Rio Tinto Mines and where its profits come from and and maybe check out the long term damage its by product is doing to the people of Iraq, Libya and very soon Syria –

    “We have a deferential and monarchical system in this country that assigns all the mineral rights to the Queen. And she has control over any oil, gas and coal… and I’m a fervent opponent of this and for these purposes I’m a strong

  • @ Terence Patrick Hewett A good post and I’d like to reassure you that such people (aka cartoonists) still exist. Any disappearance reflects the acts of the printed institutions of journalism who are less accommodating of the pencil holders need to eat 😉 Of course, the digital world offers great opportunity for visual journalists and journalism but in infinite digital space it may be that no one can really hear you etch 😉

    Fwiw, here’s a mouldy-old piece from 2009 I wrote about the changes underway for cartoonists working in print.

  • terence patrick hewett

    I enjoyed the 2009 article and the comments were especially interesting. Every profession these days is being transformed: as an engineer I have had to transmogrify 5 times just to remain in the market, so cartoonists are not alone in this respect.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Terence, in your excellent list of cartoonists, you’ve left out one of the most brilliant, my old friend “Marc” (Mark Boxer), whose portrait caricatures were some of the most telling of any. And last time I looked, the inimitable Gerry Scarfe was still presenting his own brand of insight!

    Oh, I can feel a list coming up…..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And, from my own experience in other media, without the crust…….

  • terence patrick hewett

    Jaysus Seaaaan, Can we get a conversatiuon on Brian O’Nolan and the great: Hugh Leonard wos better than Yeats.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Terence, why don’t you write a lead posting and send it to Mick, or Brian O’Neill (no relation) or David McCann? Or post something over on “Banville on Books”? Then we can stay on thread theme while indulging our worst prejudices about writing…………