Was Peter Oborne right about the Telegraph’s coverage of the HSBC scandal?

Oborne newspaper coverage copyPosted: February 18, 2015 at 5:33 pm

(Published with permission from the author Dr Gordon Ramsay, Research Fellow, Media Standards Trust and Visiting Research Fellow. It was first published on the KCL Policy Institute blog)

On Tuesday 17th February Peter Oborne resigned as chief political commentator at the Telegraph, with an article published on OpenDemocracy claiming, among other things, that

“The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible.”

 The publisher has described Mr Oborne’s article as “an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo”.

 One of Mr Oborne’s main criticisms of the paper was that last week’s HSBC scandal received meagre coverage in the Telegraph, in order not to endanger a lucrative advertising deal.

This post assesses Oborne’s claim. It does this by analysing the Telegraph’s coverage of the HSBC scandal, in comparison to coverage in other papers, based on data gathered with the digital content analysis tool Steno. This tool, developed and run by the Media Standards Trust, gathers, tags and analyses large volumes of UK online news articles and has been developed to provide election coverage analysis (Election Unspun is launching next week).

In this instance, we can test Oborne’s claims about the Telegraph’s coverage of the HSBC tax avoidance scandal. Our analysis shows that the Telegraph published 16 online articles featuring the HSBC scandal between Monday 9th February and the following Sunday (out of 2,047 articles published on the Telegraph website during that time). This was fewer than half the amount of stories published on the websites of The Times (and Sunday Times), the FT and the Independent over the same period, and fewer than a quarter of those published by the Guardian (who broke the story) and the Daily Mail (Figure 1).

Figure-1-2

However, even this gives a slightly misleading impression of the Telegraph’s coverage. As Figure 2 shows, the bulk of the articles appeared online on Wednesday 11th and Thursday 12th February. On the Wednesday, coverage was largely based on exchanges on the matter during Prime Minister’s Questions, consisting of:

-  Two articles on Lord Fink’s threat to sue Ed Miliband (‘Tory treasurer threatens to sue Ed Miliband over tax row’; ‘Lord Fink tells Ed Miliband: repeat tax avoidance claims and I will sue you’)

-  An article on David Cameron’s defence of his role in the appointment of Lord Green at PMQs (‘David Cameron rejects claims he is ‘up to his neck’ in HSBC tax avoidance scandal’)

-  Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith rejecting allegations of holding a Swiss bank account (‘Zac Goldsmith: I’ve never had a Swiss bank account’)

-  An article on HMRC’s decision to withdraw witnesses prior to giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (‘HMRC pulls top official hours ahead of stormy session with MPs’)

In each of these articles, the main focus was on the behaviour of public figures or bodies (Miliband, Cameron, Goldsmith and HMRC) not on the behaviour of HSBC.

On the following day (Thursday) the five published articles mentioning the HSBC scandal consisted of:

-  A leader article criticising Ed Miliband’s handling of the issue (‘Demonised by Labour simply for being wealthy’)

-  A comment piece criticising Ed Miliband’s behaviour on the issue (‘Screaming about tax dodgers is the new witch hunting’)

-  Two articles alleging Labour strategists were capitalising on the issue inappropriately (‘Ed Miliband criticised over aide’s comparison of tax row to Milly Dowler case’; ‘Ed Miliband sees tax avoidance row as another ‘Milly Dowler’ moment’)

-  An article on Miliband defending his previous comments about a Conservative donor (‘Ed Miliband repeats Lord Fink tax claims outside Parliament but refuses to say he was ‘dodgy’’)

Figure-2

Again, the focus of each of these articles was the behaviour of public individuals and public bodies rather than the behaviour of HSBC (in this case Ed Miliband and the Labour Party). Of the 10 articles published on the Telegraph’s website on Wednesday and Thursday, only one mentioned HSBC in the headline.

The remaining six articles, spread from Tuesday 10th February to Sunday 15th February (the Telegraph published no articles on HSBC on Monday when the story broke), consist of the following:

-  (Tuesday 10/02): An article on HMRC being called to a “difficult” meeting to defend its record on the issue (‘Top HMRC officials to be grilled over HSBC tax row’), and another on the pressure on Lord Green as a result of the allegations (‘Former Tory minister Lord Green under pressure over HSBC tax claims’)

-  (Friday 13/02): An article on a statement to staff by the Chief Executive of HSBC on the scandal (‘HSBC boss says Swiss controversy has been ‘painful’’)

-  (Saturday 14/02): One article on Ed Miliband calling for an inquiry into HMRC as a result of its handling of the issue of tax avoidance (‘Ed Miliband calls for ‘root and branch’ inquiry into HMRC’), and another on Lord Green’s resignation (‘Lord Green quits amid HSBC row’)

-  (Sunday 15/02): An article on statements by Ed Balls on tax evasion, including Ed Miliband’s use of a ‘deed of variation’ (‘Ed Balls refuses to back Ed Miliband tax loophole’)

In other words, though the articles mentioned the scandal, none focused significantly on alleged wrongdoing at HSBC.

In total, as Figure 3 shows, the Telegraph’s coverage of the HSBC scandal overwhelmingly focused on how the allegations affect public figures and bodies. 12 out of 16 articles focus on how the allegations reflect on politicians or party strategists. Three focus on how the scandal reflects on HMRC, while just one focuses specifically on HSBC – in this case on an apology by its chief executive.

Figure-3

These figures indicate that Peter Oborne’s criticisms of the Telegraph’s coverage of the scandal appear to be well founded. The Telegraph devoted far fewer articles to the subject than comparable UK news sources. Those articles that it did publish contained little or no investigation into the allegations levelled at HSBC, instead framing the issue as a matter of embarrassment or conflict among politicians, political parties, or public bodies.

To see a list of all the articles published by the Telegraph last week that refer to HSBC click here.

2 comments

  1. David Lewis

    So let me get this straight: the purpose of a newspaper is not after all foremost to fearlessly report the truth and preserve freedom of expression, but above all else to protect its business interests…

    Right, got it.

  2. Dan

    Of course, the day following Peter Oborne’s article (and the Telegraph’s subsequent rebuttal), it was extremely predictable to see a small HSBC story on the front page of today’s Telegraph… Too little too late.