Oborne/Telegraph HSBC row shows why brand owners shouldn’t touch the news agenda with a bargepole

Editors have always come under pressure from proprietors, forever anxious to protect their commercial investment and, quite often, suck up to friends and supposed allies.

Such conflicts aren’t always as black and white as they seem. Hacks often hunt in packs and when you get more than one competing pack in the chase then judgement can go out of the window. Owners, publishers and managers are sometimes right to tell them to calm down a bit.

When a true scandal breaks – as it seems to have done with the HSBC bank and its connivance in tax avoidance/evasion (where do you draw the line?) then it’s a paper’s duty to report it fully and prominently if it has any useful information to provide. Which, in this case, the UK paper The Telegraph (Daily Telegraph as was) apparently had.

peter-oborneIt did according to star political commentator Peter Oborne (left), anyway, who has just resigned from the paper in protest at its downplaying of the story.

This, he alleges, came via the management from owners the Barclay Brothers (who also own The Ritz, among other baubles). Oborne alleges this is part of a pattern whereby the Barclays have ‘protected’ Telegraph advertisers against the depredations of Telegraph hacks. Oborne’s full resignation letter/article is in openDemocracy.

The Telegraph has undergone many changes in recent years as it tries to adapt to the digital environment. Most notably it appointed US technocrat Jason Seiken, who made his name at PBS, to the post of editor-in-chief and ‘chief content officer.’ Editors, of whom the Telegraph has had a surfeit through its revolving doors, are a thing of the past apparently. Seiken, claims Oborne, is more interested in chasing clicks than accuracy and relevance. Seiken has yet to respond publicly although the Telegraph has denied Oborne’s allegations.

This is both an old issue and a new one too.

Already this week we’ve seen the two big French marcoms firms Publicis, via a deal for news agency Relaxnews, and Havas, through a tie-up with NewsCred attempting to, somehow, infiltrate brands into the business of news. Quite how they propose to do this without turning news into something else is as yet unclear.

If it’s sponsorship under another name that might be OK. If the ‘brands,’ or, more likely, their agency advisers start to try to determine which news stories run and how they’re covered then that is decidedly not OK.

As ever “it’s the economy, stupid” as Bill Clinton put it. There’s more news around than ever, thanks to the internet, but its purveyors, for the most part, make less money from it. So funding is an issue and this may mean – may mean – that established news organisations are not as principled as they might be and that newer news organisations, like Relaxnews and NewsCred, are perhaps – perhaps – a touch injudicious in their choice of partners.

For brand owners the choice, surely, is clear. They shouldn’t become involved with anything that smacks of trying to influence the news agenda. Because, sooner or later, they’ll be found out.

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