In a scathing editorial published on the Open Democracy website, the newspaper's former chief political commentator accuses The Daily Telegraph management of burying reports on the black hole in the HSBC accounts, which he infers was at the behest of the advertising department.
Oborne notes how a story about HSBC closing the accounts of British Muslims, which he submitted last year, failed to appear on the newspaper's website. When he inquired as to why, he says he was "fobbed off with excuses", after which he was told there "was a legal problem".
"When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that 'there is a bit of an issue with HSBC'," he writes.
He says that an article penned by the newspaper's former banking correspondent, detailing the "black hole" in HSBC's accounts, was published, then removed from the website, while more recent revelations about the bank, particularly how its Swiss banking arm allegedly evaded tax, received minimal coverage in The Daily Telegraph, unlike the other national newspapers.
He also highlights how the newspaper failed to adequately cover the protests in Hong Kong, instead publishing a puff piece by a Chinese ambassador “just before the lucrative China Watch supplement."
He alleges that key advertisers, including Tesco and Cunards, were given flattering coverage in the newspaper, concerns that he took to Murdoch MacLennan, the Telegraph Media Group CEO. Incredibly, Oborne says MacLennan responded by saying there was a “long history of this sort of thing at The Telegraph”.
Oborne details how a declining readership gave way to "waves of sackings", including that of the former editor Tony Gallagher, who was replaced by Jason Seiken as "head of content". He says this change led to the introduction of a "click culture", which he argued caused "incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper", along with the decimation of the foreign desk. He also accusing the newspaper of trying to operate without sub editors.
Amid the "declining standards", Oborne says the distinction between the editorial and advertising departments, which have traditionally been kept “rigorously apart”, has collapsed, warning other newspapers against allowing “corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue.”
Highlighting his principal reasons for quitting the newspaper, Oborne states:
After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public. There are two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers. It might sound a pompous thing to say, but I believe the newspaper is a significant part of Britain’s civic architecture. It is the most important public voice of civilised, sceptical conservatism.
Telegraph readers are intelligent, sensible, well-informed people. They buy the newspaper because they feel that they can trust it. If advertising priorities are allowed to determine editorial judgments, how can readers continue to feel this trust? The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible. Imagine if the BBC—so often the object of Telegraph attack—had conducted itself in this way. The Telegraph would have been contemptuous. It would have insisted that heads should roll, and rightly so.
This brings me to a second and even more important point that bears not just on the fate of one newspaper but on public life as a whole. A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. 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.
A Telegraph Spokesperson told HuffPost UK: "Like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear. We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.
“It is a matter of huge regret that Peter Oborne, for nearly five years a contributor to the Telegraph, should have launched such an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo, on his own paper.”