Peter Oborne's resignation from The Telegraph raises serious questions for all mainstream media

Former Telegraph commentator Peter Oborne has his detractors but he is generally viewed as having the courage to say 'no' to power in a way that few others dare.

What price dignity in the rush for readers? asks Jolyon Kimble
What price dignity in the rush for readers? asks Jolyon Kimble

He rubs some people up the wrong way but he’s fearless and he makes things happen.

Journalists feel journalism needs people like Oborne.

When it comes to questions of editorial integrity he’s credible.

So, on the night of 17 February, as news of his resignation and the reasons for it began to get wide circulation, The Telegraph would have been worried about the number of "yeah, but he’s got a point though", conversations happening in Westminster and the City.

By yesterday, when King’s College London came out and said that, statistically, The Telegraph had given less coverage to the HSBC story than other newspapers, seeming to substantiate one of Oborne’s central claims, it would have worried that the story was becoming impossible to contain.

By last night, mainstream support was continuing to build around the maverick resignee, with The Guardian's Simon Jenkins claiming Oborne was "worth 10 Levesons".

London Mayor Boris Johnson was pretty much alone in standing up for The Telegraph, which has fiercely denied the charges.

Oborne’s allegation is of course that, in relation to a story about HSBC, The Telegraph has backed down rather than risk upsetting an advertising client.

Further, that this is not an isolated incident, but a natural consequence of the way the paper is run.

These are serious claims (though some would say that all Oborne has done is take oft-reported allegations from Private Eye and given them wider play) and The Telegraph will want to skewer them as early as possible.

The Telegraph came out quickly with a robust denial, but it knows it faces a monumental battle to bring balance to the coverage of this story.

It is important that it comes out with a more detailed response.

Newspapers will come under increasing pressure to justify themselves against the accusation that advertisers exert too much of an influence as sales fall, and it is important that The Telegraph demonstrates that its integrity is undiminished.

Perhaps there are mitigating circumstances the leadership of the paper feels it can’t go into in public, but it needs to fight for share of voice here, even if it has to work within rules that don’t apply to professional non-conformists like Oborne.

Of course, this is not just about The Telegraph; this is about standards generally.

The fact that Oborne chose to announce his decision with a lengthy piece on Open Democracy is telling – he used a ‘digital commons’ that describes itself as a ‘counter to the corporate media’ to question the independence and relevance of the fourth estate.

Oborne obviously hopes this will be a trigger for much bigger questions, the discussion of which will inevitably reference The Telegraph and create a continuing problem for the paper.

That’s why it needs to tackle this head on.

Questions will include: in straitened times, what price dignity in the rush for readers?

In an age of sponsored copy, is the line between editorial and advertising becoming too blurred?

What is the responsibility and role of proprietors?

There are also questions that have particular relevance for us in the PR profession, including how do we advise our clients on advertising strategy, when new approaches to advertising such as newspapers hosting branded content create new opportunities, but also dangers?

And when any change in approach can be interpreted as an act of aggression and therefore be reputationally damaging, as the episode has been for HSBC?

One thing is for sure, based on his track record, Oborne isn’t finished yet, and this is a discussion that will run and run.

Jolyon Kimble is a director at the London office of APCO Worldwide

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in