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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