Peter Oborne resigned from the UK Telegraph because it was scandalously holding back negative stories about HSBC, a major advertiser. His plea is an eye opener:
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.
So much for the illusion of free press.
A friend said this has nothing to do with a science blog. I said, Why not? Science journals are publishing houses too, and worse, their main advertiser is also their biggest subscriber. The journals live where a monopsony meets a monopoly. The largest customer of many science journals are government funded university libraries and academics. The advertisers are often the same organizations. A new Nature journal was even set up this month in partnership with a university. Independence is not just a blurry line out there, it’s deep fog. There is dominant government funding from beginning to end.
The government doesn’t have to heavy hand the journals, as HSBC did. It doesn’t need to be overt at all. In fields like climate research nearly every single employee in the chain of people who send in material, review the material, buy the subscriptions, and pay for advertising are predominantly paid from the public purse. How many of them, do you suppose, would be active critics of big-government and of big-spending policies?
Perhaps the blog model of science publishing is the purest form of publishing — one that only answers to the readers.
I’ve copied some snippets here just to show how deeply this runs at The Telegraph. Peter Oborne’s open letter is worth reading in full. James Delingpole thought so too.
Late last year I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. “It’s like having your water cut off,” one victim told me.
When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that “there is a bit of an issue” with HSBC. Eventually I gave up in despair and offered the article to openDemocracy. It can be read here.
After three months research the Telegraph resolved to publish. Six articles on this subject can now be found online, between 8 and 15 November 2012, although three are not available to view.
Thereafter no fresh reports appeared. Reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. I have now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When I asked the Telegraph why the Barclay brothers were involved, it declined to comment.
This was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is “the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend”. HSBC today refused to comment when I asked whether the bank’s decision to stop advertising with the Telegraph was connected in any way with the paper’s investigation into the Jersey accounts.
Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately 12 months. Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. “He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,” says one former Telegraph journalist. “Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.
“An editorial operation that is clearly influenced by advertising is classic appeasement. Once a very powerful body know they can exert influence they know they can come back and threaten you. It totally changes the relationship you have with them. You know that even if you are robust you won’t be supported and will be undermined.”
There may be other journals that answer predominantly to subscribers (and the subscribers themselves have some independence–perhaps engineering and mining?) Which journals have true independent funding?