by Angela Phillips
When Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph earlier this week, his parting outpouring of rage at the paper’s ‘fraud upon its readers’ for failing to properly report the HSBC scandal was wrong in only one discernable respect: the rot had set in before 2010 when he arrived as chief political commentator and long before the advent of Jason Seiken as editor-in-chief in 2013. Indeed it set in shortly after the newspaper was taken over by the Barclay brothers in 2004.
Oborne refers with distaste to a story about a woman with three breasts that featured on the website on last September to attract ‘clicks’. But ‘click bait’ (sensational articles written to include words that come up in Google searches) had long been a part of the culture, as a Private Eye story in 2008 attests:
News hacks are now sent a memo three or four times a day from the web site boffins listing the top subjects being searched in the last few hours on Google. They are then expected to write stories accordingly and/or get as many of those key words into the first paragraph of their story. Hence, if the top stories being Googled are ‘Britney Spears’ and ‘breast cancer’, hey presto, the hack is duly expected to file a piece about young women ‘such as Britney Spears’ being at risk from breast cancer. (11 July 2008)
The downward slide in quality was very clearly discernable in late 2007 when I interviewed a number of Telegraph journalists for my own research. I was interested in news sources and discovered that a third of the Telegraph stories under discussion had been lifted, unattributed, from other publications, sometimes complete with interviews by rival journalists. One thing that struck me about my interviewees was their level of fear. I had to make assurances that no names would be mentioned and no identifying details could possibly lead their editors to know to whom I had spoken. The fear was real. The sackings mentioned by Oborne had already started. In 2006 over 100 journalists were culled. Few of the sacked journalists were prepared to talk publicly about their experience. Those who remained talked of constant pressure to follow news-desk diktats. According to one particular journalist who looked back with nostalgia to the old days when specialist journalists were in charge of their sections and expected to ‘write it in the way you saw it’:
Well, when all this, when this pressure started happening, I just had daily fights with them. I’d stand at the news desk and go; ‘but why do you want me to run it, it’s not true’. And they, I mean you could actually see the veins in their neck kind of wobbling and they were going purple. But now, but I just say ‘yeah, fine, 600 words by 2 o’clock’ and, you know, so what, I mean, you know. They don’t care whether it’s true or not. They literally do not. [Telegraph reporter 2008]
What Oborne’s devastating attack has now made much clearer is the degree to which these editorial diktats were being driven not merely by a desire to get more people clicking on stories, but also to avoid stories that might displease major advertisers. The Telegraph, in an editorial on Thursday, used its coverage of the MPs expenses scandal to demonstrate its fearlessness in the face of criticism over its HSBC failures. MPs, however, are easy targets – they have no cash power at their disposal and find it very difficult to retaliate when attacked in the press. Indeed, as the response to Leveson has demonstrated, MPs are virtually powerless if the Press stand together against them.
There is of course real financial pressure on news organisations. The Telegraph is still very much a profit-making business but profits across the board are falling as advertising has moved online. What this debacle has shown up very clearly is the degree to which the managers are taking control of the newsrooms and breaking down the division between editorial and advertising that has been fiercely protected by editors and journalists since the turn of the last century. This is a point made very forcibly by ex Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, on the BBC Today Programme earlier this week.
Of course advertising has never been an equitable way of ensuring press plurality. Publications with small circulations and unpopular opinions are always disadvantaged in the fight for revenue. Nevertheless most journalists attest to the fact that blatant attempts at interference with stories would, in the past, have been fought off. Indeed on this occasion, HSBC didn’t only threaten to withdraw advertising from the Telegraph, they also threatened the Guardian which nevertheless had the courage of its convictions and published the allegations. However, as margins narrow, it is getting harder to hold the line. The Guardian allows part of its web site to be ‘sponsored’ by advertisers while Vice, the home of ‘authentic’ youth oriented, transparent journalism, has an entire division devoted to producing advertising in the guise of editorial. Both these organisations label sponsored sections of their websites and videos but there is certainly concern that, as advertisers have deserted news in favour of more direct approaches to their customers, the competition for revenue means that advertisers can more easily call the shots. And there is no organisation with the power to stop them.
Angela Phillips in the author of Journalism in Context, Routledge.