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Telegraph attack on Times following HSBC row shows it is still dog eat dog in newspaper media

By Paul Connew | Media Expert

February 22, 2015 | 5 min read

Dog eat dog, like it or not, is an old Fleet Street ‘tradition’ and has sometimes added to the gaiety of the nation. But the Daily Telegraph’s abuse of its front page to attack Rupert Murdoch’s News UK by claiming two commercial managers had been driven to suicide, and nine others were signed off with ‘stress’, took ‘dog eat dog’ from the idiomatic to the idiotic and ultimately the rabid.

The ‘By Daily Telegraph Reporter’ byline bore eloquent testimony to the frenzied, unmuzzled desperation of the newspaper’s management to counter-attack rivals who had seized on the furore sparked by Peter Oborne’s bombshell resignation as chief political columnist in protest over the alleged suppression, downplaying or slanting of stories, including the HSBC tax avoidance revelations, to placate advertisers.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone among media commentators in receiving calls and emails from friends on the Telegraph expressing either anger or sadness at the anonymised ‘suicide’ story.

Another recurring theme was a sense of grief that the newspaper that not so long ago displayed the journalistic courage and integrity to expose the MPs expenses scandal had resorted to such a crude, cruel and cynical response.

As a longstanding judge of the British Press Awards who’d been proud to acknowledge the Telegraph’s brilliant, public interest expose of politicians ‘defrauding’ the taxpayer, it was a sentiment I could wholeheartedly share.

Whoever wrote Saturday’s front page, the strong suspicion among those who spoke to me was that it would have been a journalist under pressure from the management floor. If not, perhaps the Telegraph CEO Murdoch MacLennan (once renowned for enjoying the company of journalists and respecting their independence) might care to enlighten us?

Unlike some commentators, I can understand why the Telegraph high command couldn’t resist the urge to fire back at critical rivals, armed with a sense they were seizing the moral high ground with one eye on the potential commercial advantages to be gained from the ‘Torygraph’s’ discomfiture. And, yes, they are almost certainly right that other newspaper groups’ have been removing some of the bricks in the ‘Chinese Wall’ between editorial and commercial departments.

That said, they’ve failed to produce anything as egregious as the evidence cited by Peter Oborne, a principled maverick who was trusted to pen leading articles for the newspaper and who, until recently, had vociferously expressed his pride (to me, among others) at working for the Telegraph.

For Murdoch MacLennan, there is also the discomfiture of Oborne’s allegations directly contradicting the Telegraph head honcho’s Leveson Inquiry sworn evidence that he never interfered with editorial independence.

If the tradition of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ has anything resembling the Queensberry Rules then Saturday’s suicide story was a below the belt blow and the hostile reaction of both charities specialising in suicide and the media generally totally justified. Suicide, as a perfunctory check with the paper’s medical correspondent would have revealed, is rarely the result of a single issue.

But even the Telegraph’s counter-attacks on its critics shortchange its readers. By lacerating its rivals, while failing to provide the proper context that the whole crisis was triggered by one of its own, the Telegraph insults its readers and overlooks the fact that the vast majority would be well aware of Peter Oborne’s charge by simple virtue of its national and international coverage across both the mainstream and social media.

As a regular newspaper reviewer for TV and radio, I’d expressed puzzlement at how much the Telegraph were underplaying the HSBC story, following the Panorama/Guardian/Le Monde revelations (when the Daily Star gave it a bigger show than the Telegraph, you knew something strange was happening) but it took Peter Oborne’s stand to add substance to suspicion.

It’s also hard to disagree (sorry, Mr MacLennan) with the Guardian’s leader page description of the Telegraph’s editorial of Friday as ‘a long, dishonest and callow editorial that almost comically attempted to shift the blame onto the BBC and the Guardian. You would never guess that the criticism—unreported in the Telegraph—actually came from neither of these sources, but from their own much-celebrated former colleague’.

As the bushfire he’d started continued to blaze, Peter Oborne headed, in true Maverick-style, to the Lahore Literary Festival rather than accept a flood of further media invitations to expand on his dramatic departure.

But at least he seemed to have scored one small victory….the Telegraph deigned to give the Swiss police’s raid on HSBC’s private banking arm as big a news page show as anyone.

Maybe, just maybe, light at the end of a very dark tunnel?

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, co-author of ‘After Leveson’ and former editor Sunday Mirror, deputy editor Daily Mirror and News of the World

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