What Peter Oborne’s resignation forces us to confront about journalism

Chilling effect … Lewis Whyld/PA

As news of Peter Oborne’s resignation from The Daily Telegraph went scattering around the internet and as further coverage came in interviews and articles that evening and the following morning, it became clear that a story of very traditional dynamics of journalism was unfolding.

Oborne resigned because he was fed up with stories being pulled offline and criticism of advertisers was being relegated to small corners of inside pages at the paper. For Oborne, a boundary had been crossed and the journalistic ideals he subscribed to had been broken.

But one has to ask if it is only because it is a story coming from a storied and traditional newspaper and a well-regarded journalist that we are even hearing about it.

What Oborne’s letter shows is an unravelling of an agreed-upon set of rules that journalists and journalism and particularly newspapers adhere to. These rules are what allow newspapers to balance the profit-making demands with its public interest ideals. By abiding with them, both the business of running a paper and the editorial decisions that fill its pages could be managed. Clearly for Oborne, the business leaders at the Telegraph had failed to adhere to that division – and his frustration over that failure is apparent.

His is not a unique case, of course, as both overt influence by corporate owners and more passive influence has “chilled” critical journalism time and time again. However the blending of corporate and editorial interests has become an ever-present concern, particularly as revenue from print advertising has dwindled and newspapers have sought new ways to secure both revenue and readers.

You only need to look to the news earlier this year, that The New York Times was adding to its in-house design staff to create native advertising and content, for a similar story of the blurring of distinctions between what is journalism and what is advertising.

As with Tuesday’s expose from Oborne, that the New York Times would consider such a move was met with surprise. With both the Telegraph and the New York Times, the idea that such legacy media brands would consider crossing this sacred line leads to a great deal of uneasiness over the extent to which newspapers would accede to advertiser demands, and questions over what audiences and readers can trust from these brands.

Which returns us to the worrying thought that we might only be hearing about these instances of corporate pressure and editorial influence because they are happening at legacy institutions in traditional news environments.

For as much as we can suggest that what Peter Oborne wrote in his resignation letter might be commonplace, we also only know of the instances he describes. Contrasting the minimal space for critical stories in the inside pages of the Telegraph with front-page splashes and major investigations in competing newspapers is tangible. It can be measured in ink and inches.

When protests in Hong Kong secured the attention of leader articles and front pages in a range of British newspapers and the Telegraph’s coverage was tepid, as Oborne alleges, that can be explored by looking at an array of newspapers in any newsagents. When UK newspapers were decrying China’s refusal to grant British MPs access to Hong Kong and the Telegraph was mum (setting aside space for the Chinese ambassador ahead of a “lucrative” supplemental section China Watch) we can see that. In traditional terms, these can all be compared.

What’s more damning and more worrisome is that Oborne can point to articles critical of HSBC and published on the Telegraph’s website being deleted. Without his tell-all resignation, we might never be aware of such stories. It is perhaps ironic that it was Buzzfeed that ran the deleted stories on its site.

It was also Buzzfeed, the site that built its online presence on the very blend of native advertising and original content under discussion here, that reminds us of the futility of suppressing news when there are so many online possibilities. And it is Buzzfeed, and sites like it, that force us to ask whether the boundaries between the advertising and the editorial still exist, and where are they drawn online.

What should make Peter Oborne’s resignation a shock and a media scandal is not only the violation of a particular set of journalism’s ideals and paradigms. It is that it introduces obvious questions we have no way to reasonably answer. How often this is happening elsewhere? How do we measure the “tweaks” and “edits” and “changes” happening online at the behest of advertisers or under corporate pressure? And how do journalists, who have built their reputations on the boundaries between advertising and editorial, now repair the paradigms that Oborne’s letter reveals as broken?