HSBC issue last straw for Oborne, a natural ‘Telegraph’ man

Departing commentator said publicly what many journalists have said privately

The logo of HSBC bank. The Daily Telegraph’s departing political commentator, Peter Oborne complained this week that it had failed to cover tax evasion allegations against the bank for fear it would lose the institution’s advertising. Photograph: Pierre Albouy/Reuters

The logo of HSBC bank. The Daily Telegraph’s departing political commentator, Peter Oborne complained this week that it had failed to cover tax evasion allegations against the bank for fear it would lose the institution’s advertising. Photograph: Pierre Albouy/Reuters

 

Tim Butcher, who last year published a fine book on Gavrilo Princip, the assassin whose bullet set the fire that led to the first World War, began his life in Fleet Street as a cub reporter on the Daily Telegraph.

On his first day, Butcher picked up a ringing telephone. “Is that the editorial desk?” asked a voice. “This is Private Eye here. Can you tell me if Conrad Black, NW8, as appears on the letters page in today’s paper fiercely criticising the paper’s stance on Hong Kong, is in any way related to Conrad Black, NW8, owner of the Daily Telegraph?”

The Canadian-born Black, who would be later jailed in the US, had written a private letter to the Telegraph’s editor, Max Hastings, bitterly complaining about the editorial line taken over the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong.

In Hastings’s view, the US had caused the problem and it should pay for it. Black disagreed, irritated that all the sins of the world were laid at the door of the US. Hastings believed the letter was sufficiently well-written to justify a place on the letters page.

Oborne departure

TelegraphPeter OborneHSBC

Last month, Oborne was told that he was losing his weekly column, one he has written for five years and in which he has taken few prisoners. He was also told that the newspaper would pay out his contract until May.

Oborne said he agreed to go quietly because he “had no desire to damage the newspaper. For all its problems, it continues to employ a large number of very fine writers. They have mortgages and families”.

Matters changed, however, after the HSBC story emerged on Sunday, February 8th. The Telegraph carried nothing on the story “on Monday, six slim paragraphs at the bottom left of page two on Tuesday, seven paragraphs deep in the business pages on Wednesday”, Oborne said.

Instead of enjoying several months of “paid gardening leave”, Oborne decided to quit immediately, saying the Telegraph’s interest in the story “only looked up when the story turned into claims that there might be questions about the tax affairs of people connected to the Labour Party”.

The battle between newspapers and advertisers is as old as the media business. Advertisers unhappy about reporting threaten to withdraw business. HSBC, for example, has “paused” its advertising with the Guardian. Strong newspapers reject the threat; weak ones bend with the wind.

Oborne’s charges against the Telegraph are damaging, largely because he is saying publicly what many journalists working for the title – which sells some 500,000 copies daily to an audience heavily aged over 60 – have said privately.

The Telegraph was once the unquestioned voice of Middle England: “country solicitors, struggling small businessmen . . . schoolteachers, military folk, farmers, decent people with a stake in the country”, says Oborne’s words. The paper has become a deeply unhappy ship in recent years.

Sackings are routine, particularly of older, more experienced writers, at the paper, which has been owned for the past decade by the secretive Barclay brothers (who are still embroiled in a costly, seemingly never-ending legal battle with Irish property investor Paddy McKillen).

Making money

TelegraphBarclays

Privately, staff yearn for their departure and pray for the arrival of Michael Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Oborne, the most English of Englishmen – born into a family in which the Telegraph was part of life, educated at a public boarding school, father a diplomat – is quietly satisfied.

He is a lover of cricket, and every August he brings a cricket team to Ireland. The White City All-Stars, named after a long-closed greyhound stadium in west London, meander their way comfortably across the country, cricket interspersed with conviviality.

The White City players took part in the first game of cricket to be played in Castlebar since partition. It was the first British team to play in the Curragh against an Irish Army selection.

“We’re already busy planning the next trip,” Oborne told The Irish Times yesterday, quickly recalling the names of generous hosts in Thomastown in Co Kilkenny and elsewhere. He will have more time for cricket for a while.

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