The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, like all newspapers, live or die on integrity. If the paper cannot be believed or is suspected of shielding advertisers it is only a matter of time before readers walk away.
The revelation that Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator of the Telegraph, has resigned, claiming the paper refused to cover the HSBC tax avoidance story properly for commercial reasons and that other big advertisers were similarly given preferential treatment, is potentially disastrous for the Telegraph.
Oborne is a well-respected journalist and political thinker whose claims carry a lot of weight and will be taken seriously. The Telegraph has strenuously denied the allegations but it would, wouldn't it?
The media commentators of the other papers and the broadcasters will, even now, be carrying out a forensic examination of the Telegraph's coverage of stories concerning its biggest advertisers and comparing them elsewhere. Of course, news judgement comes into all coverage, but no one can deny that the HSBC and Tesco stories deserved acres of space.
I worked for the Telegraph, as a reporter and news editor, and at that time it would have been unthinkable for anyone in the commercial departments to have any sway on editorial decisions – although it has happened in other newspapers. The Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, despite the protestations of senior executives, once offered cut-price private healthcare as part of a marketing campaign involving a health group, and saw readers walk away in their thousands and the telephone switchboard almost fusing.
But times have changed at the Telegraph. There was once a pride that news and comment were always kept apart and some of the most left-leaning news reporters in Fleet Street were able to work for the paper, writing straight news, knowing their stories would not be changed for political or commercial reasons. The news editors, as opposed to their counterparts on the tabloids, carried more weight than the back bench with the editors and held sway when editorial decisions were made.
Cracks in the dam appeared at the Telegraph when news stories started to be laced with comment after executives from the Daily Mail were hired. But that is a long way from running away from stories that may upset the big advertisers.
There is no doubt that the Telegraph is more cost-conscious than it was under the ownership of Conrad Black. He had many faults but could never be accused of selling out journalism for profit. Many of the more highly-paid reporters and commentators at the Telegraph have been paid off and there is a younger staff more likely to ask "how high?" when an executive says jump.
If Oborne is right, the Telegraph is in big trouble and it will only take a couple of other respected journalists to back him for the dominoes to start to fall. Oborne can be cranky, difficult, truculent and opinionated, but would not risk his reputation by making false statements.
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government