A free press? The consequences of the Telegraph newspaper war

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

The tactic employed by the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) in attempting to defuse the furore over commercial considerations overriding editorial decisions is classic: start a newspaper war.

Through its editorials and stories about other newspaper groups, TMG has tried to persuade readers that attacks on its editorial integrity are unfounded, but in doing so has failed to refute the basic accusation by Peter Oborne that stories have been dropped to appease advertisers.

Oborne, who had a loyal following for five years as chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, has been portrayed by his former bosses as disillusioned and bitter, but his considered outburst has been supported by former and current Telegraph employees.

Another problem for TMG is that in the last two years the group has been at the forefront of the battle to stop statutory government press regulation, claiming that it could lead to the end of press freedom. That battle has been won but it seems that instead of government control and influence, big business is getting a measure of control and inhibiting investigative journalism.

This breaks one of the basic tenets of news journalism: news is something, somewhere that someone wants to stop; all the rest is advertising.

Journalists and newspaper groups have long argued that the profession has a special position, like doctors and lawyers. Laws should be in place to cement press freedom, to allow unfettered investigation, to maintain reporters' sources as sacrosanct. However, that position could be undermined if editorial decisions are based on money grubbing and not integrity.

The Telegraph bravely led the way in investigating MPs' expenses and quite rightly swept the board during the awards season, but the story started with information misappropriated from parliament and bought by the Telegraph.

If the editor had been hauled before a court, either civil or criminal, his lawyers would have rightly claimed a public interest defence, but now the opposition could argue, based on HSBC, that the Telegraph acts out of its own commercial interests to gain readers and make money and not for any high-minded reasons. That there is no public interest, just the rule of the pocket.

Oborne has called for the Barclay brothers, the owners of TMG, to sell the group, but that is not likely to happen any time soon. Newspaper proprietors have always been publishers for their own reasons, mostly for vanity, to have a seat at the top table and to carry influence. Making money was also a consideration, but not at the expense of dropping investigations at the behest of advertisers. Where would it stop?

The great Telegraph journalist Bill Deedes is said to be the model for the hero of that great newspaper novel, Scoop. Deedes, a towering figure at the Telegraph well into his eighties, would have had no truck with his work, or any reporter's work, being undermined.

The present editors should read Scoop again, if they have read it at all, and when told from the top "drop that investigation, you understand?" reply: "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government

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