Whistleblowers, commercial editorial and Peter Oborne

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In the wake of the HSBC scandal, whereby Britain’s biggest bank – or rather its Swiss arm – has been found to have helped privileged clients to avoid paying their dues in tax to HMRC, a new an often overlooked media debate has been thrust into the spotlight.
Commercial editorial is a phrase that understandably makes some feel slightly nervous. At its simplest and most transparent, this term should refer to the use of advertorials and paid-for content, the likes of which have been used by magazines and newspapers for countless years, and more recently websites. This content is clearly marked as such. But then there’s more to this particular story than that.
Former chief political commentator of the Telegraph, Peter Oborne, came out last week with a huge accusation regarding editorial policy at his former employer, which results from his concerns that stories regarding HSBC’s underhand dealings were either blocked, or removed after online publication, as a result of the title’s desire to keep a key advertiser sweet. If this is true, then it represents a huge indictment of press freedom and will damage public trust in a cornerstone of British media; neutrality.
On Wednesday, Oborne appeared on BBC Radio 4, and during the programme reiterated his demands for the Telegraph to explain how and why the HSBC story was neglected. This being the latest in a string of similar queries the journalist has voiced, and seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back given it led to his resignation.
 
The coverage of HSBC in Britain’s¬†Telegraph¬†is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.
Peter Oborne
 
It’s a key problem for anyone working with the media, and one that comes down to transparency, and the importance of being straight when it comes to what is and isn’t going to be published. If Oborne’s allegations are accurate, then there has been a significant breach of journalistic ethics that calls into question the integrity of the industry.
The bank has also suffered from the fallout. Further to Oborne’s statement, The Guardian ran a story on how HSBC placed its advertising ‘on-hold’ whilst negotiations were taking place regarding investigations into its Swiss banking practice. For anyone on the outside looking in, there’s certainly room to speculate on whether this is a ransom note for a vital revenue stream that most media outlets simply can’t do without. The same article, though, also highlights how the survival of the press has long been reliant on striking a balance between reportage and ensuring advertisers come back again. And again.
For brands the issue is fundamental to public image. Both Oborne and The Guardian’s comments have been extremely damaging to the bank, and it’s unlikely we will see the same level of media coverage given to a retraction should these allegations end up being false. From the perspective of the average UK consumer, the reputation of HSBC was already in tatters, and has now sunk even lower. Meanwhile, the Telegraph’s separation of editorial from advertising is also being questioned, and that’s not good, at all, for a brand that makes money from current affairs coverage.
In short, then, here at Smoking Gun PR we understand the importance of commercial space within editorial, and providing this is clearly marked so readers have no option but to take note of the fact an article, post or similar content has been paid for by a business, there really can be no complaints. The problems surface when we hit the grey area between editorial and advertising.
It’s important to note that this blog isn’t designed to throw mud, nor is it aimed at any particular media outlet- or company for that matter. Instead, the idea here is simply to highlight how- rightly or wrongly- more names have been tarnished by the HSBC scandal than perhaps needed to be, if this really does boil down to a lack of clarity on why certain decisions have been made, rather than commercial interests impacting the news agenda.
It’s a notion that supports one of our core principles when it comes to everything from giving clients campaign data to selling stories into the press. Honesty and transparency must be paramount in order to ensure a good public image not just today, but tomorrow, the next day, and the years after that.