An old Daily Telegraph hand suggested to me yesterday that Peter Oborne had jumped from the paper before he was pushed. My response was incredulous. “Why on earth would they sack one of their most effective columnists?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t they?” my friend replied. “After all, they’ve sacked nearly everyone else.”
This was an exaggeration, but not by much – and part of the point that Peter himself made about his dramatic decision to turn on his own paper with all guns blazing. The Telegraph, he argues in his incendiary account of why he’s left it, is going to the dogs. It has fired some of its most valuable staff, he says, and can no longer be relied upon to distinguish between the Earl of Wessex and the Duke of Wessex – the difference being, of course, that the latter doesn’t exist. It has confused deer-hunting with deer-stalking. It ran a story about a woman with three breasts knowing that it was untrue.
This decline and fall has apparently got worse since Tony Gallagher, its former Editor, was fired last year and replaced by “an American called Jason Seiken, who took up a position called ‘Head of Content’. This, Peter seems to think, is the sort of techno-babble one must expect from those strange coves from across the water, who haven’t a clue what makes the Telegraph a great British institution – a position that is now in peril.
On the whole, he is right. (I declare an interest as a former Telegraph Comment Editor, working at the time under Charles Moore, who Peter rightly lauds.) The paper is indeed a great institution – the most Tory part, still, of the “Tory press”, that quartet of Conservative-supporting papers that includes the Daily Mail, the Sun (though it at one time backed Tony Blair) and the Daily Express (though it now leans towards UKIP). So what is happening at it is always of interest to this site and the wider conservative movement. There have been some baffling firings: David Wastell, Matthew D’Ancona, Benedict Brogan, Gallagher himself. Editors, sorry, heads of content have come and gone – including Seiken himself, by the way. The Telegraph may have a workable commercial plan. What is hard to discern is its journalistic one.
Were this the only charge that Peter were to lay at the paper’s door, it would have little significance outside the Tory world. Like most of the rest of the Conservative-leaning papers, the Telegraph has become more loyalist as the election nears. It was ever thus – and, given the unprecedented unpreparedness of Labour for government, the decision is entirely rational.
But Peter’s charge is both wider and graver. To cut a long story short, he believes that the Barclay Brothers, the paper’s proprietors, have collapsed the wall that separates editorial from advertising. Fear of offending advertisers has apparently distorted the Telegraph’s coverage of the HSBC scandal. He claims that this is “part of a wider problem”, citing comment on Hong Kong, reporting on Tesco and a feature about Cunard. “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain,” Peter goes on. “It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.” He ends with a dramatic rat-a-tat-tat. “There are great issues here. They go to the heart of our democracy, and can no longer be ignored.”
The firepower is spectacular. But is it well targeted? On the one hand, journalists often seem reluctant to concede that proprietors have a responsibility other than that constitutional one (which happily coincides with keeping them in employment) – namely, maintaining financial discipline. That means getting advertising to help pay the bills. On the other, great newspapers like the Telegraph are part of a living story. They are more than just a brand. They have identities and values – which include understanding what is editorial and what is not. In these circumstances, the proprietor is less a buccaneer than a steward, or should be. (The principle also holds for editors. Even here on a smaller ship, I try to honour what Tim Montgomerie created, the spirit of which can be found in our own manifesto as well as his new project, the Good Right.)
Perhaps Peter is right, and the distinction between editorial and advertising is collapsing, while the phone-hacking scandal proves that newspaper standards are, too. Maybe we are indeed seeing “the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media”.
But is this consistent with arguing that proprietors ultimately call the shots? Haven’t there always been Mr Salters, who say “Up to a point, Lord Copper”? Come to think of it, haven’t there always been Lord Coppers? The interests of a Beaverbrook were pursued no less ferociously than those of, say, a Murdoch. And both they and their shadowy executives have less power now, not more. Online is collapsing print’s business model. Lord Copper didn’t have to allow for Buzzfeed – or Guido Fawkes.
My friend was wrong. If Peter says he resigned for the reasons he gave, then he resigned for the reasons he gave. The timing is odd, since Seiken is no longer at the helm. And Peter may wish, in retrospect, that he had gone public before the Telegraph told him in response to his resignation that his column would be discontinued. But such decisions are seldom easy. He will have found this one painful. He is unlikely ever to starve, but to leave without having another post lined up was ballsy none the less. We will hear more about the condition of the media from the man who popularised the notion of a Political Class. But the weight of his new charge is greater than the evidence that supports it.