It was hardly a surprise to read today that the Telegraph is again in trouble for blurring the distinction between its editorial and advertising departments.
This is only the latest in a series of instances in the last year which have exposed this trend. Of course commercial organisations and governments do try to exercise their influence over editorial content – it is though a scandal when a newspaper is so ready to acquiesce.
In this instance the Telegraph has been reprimanded by the British advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, for running a “misleading” advertorial for Michelin tyres.
It ruled that the advertorial could not appear again in its original form, saying that the Telegraph had failed to make it clear enough to readers that it was a paid-for advert as the overall layout and look of the advertorial was too similar to a standard Telegraph article.
Some might see this as an unintentional error. But the Telegraph itself gave the game away earlier this year when it referred to its “advertising partners” which implied an intimacy that would have been unacceptable in the newspaper industry only a few years ago.
The Telegraph is not alone in doing this and the corporate world is only too keen to exploit this news weakness in the media. I have traced the way in which the meaning of the word partner has been corrupted and distorted in an earlier blog. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/how-the-word-partner-is-used-to-deceive-part-one/
In the case of the Telegraph, the relationship between the paper and the international bank HSBC so enraged its distinguished political commentator Peter Oborne that he resigned.
He argues that 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.” https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/peter-oborne/why-i-have-resigned-from-telegraph
The Telegraph’s response is revealing. “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 impossible to reconcile the two halves of the paragraph. By referring to those they have a commercial relationship with as “partners”, they are saying they are on the same side as them. To preserve the integrity of a media organisation from allegations of favouritism, every part of it should be firmly on the opposite of the table to those it deals with.
How indicative of the modern Telegraph it is that the words they use to defend their independence actually have the effect of reinforcing Oborne’s argument.
And anyone who is blase about the dangers of too close a link between commercial and journalistic coverage should look at the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections. Mihir Bose noted in a tweet in April that “The Daily Telegraph’s Russian pull out has articles praising Stalin, including his pact with Hitler and press freedom under the Soviets.” He warns that “The Telegraph may say thè views are those of the supplements but would most readers understand that?”
The message is clear: you can no longer take it for granted that any article in the Telegraph is based on news values alone.