The Telegraph, HSBC and Peter Oborne
A layman's guide to the relationship between editorial and advertising
"Will you sleep with me for a million pounds?" asks the man in the old joke. The woman sitting opposite in the railway carriage thinks for a moment before saying "OK."
When the man comes back with the same request for five pounds, she huffs. "What do you take me for?"
"We've established that, Madam. We are now negotiating the price."
Has the Telegraph prostituted itself for a million pounds of HSBC advertising? Does it put a higher price on its editorial integrity - the £1m quoted widely since Tuesday seemed low for such a prolific advertiser, the £3.5m mentioned by Press Gazette today more plausible - or can it be bought even more cheaply?
Just as few people cared much about a bunch of celebrities whose voicemails were intercepted until a murdered schoolgirl's phone was hacked, so few will have noticed advertising's growing influence on editorial until the Telegraph failed to cover the HSBC scandal.
Peter Oborne was not the only person to notice - even Gameoldgirl did - but he was the first to stand up and spell out what he believed had been happening at the paper.
The Telegraph has rejected his allegations as unfounded, full of inaccuracies and innuendo, but it has declined to elaborate on where he is wrong. We can see with our own eyes that coverage of the HSBC story was minimal and that what there was cast aspersions on the taxman and Labour rather than the bank.
The apparent suppression of such a big story is clearly wrong - but many outside of the industry may assume that there is some link-up between newspapers' commercial and editorial departments, so it may be helpful to explain the relationship.
First, and most obvious, the cover price will never cover the cost of producing a newspaper. Revenue has to be found in other ways, chiefly advertising. Agreement will have been reached at a very senior level on what the ratio should be between advertising and editorial content and this varies from paper to paper, with some aiming for 60% or more advertising. No paper that I have worked for has ever tipped that balance in favour of editorial. This is the norm, but it hasn't stopped people complaining "There's nothing in it, it's all ads."
The reason for this is that most businesses want their products advertised on the news pages, and the further forward the better. The news pages may therefore look cluttered, especially compared with the oceans of open pages enjoyed by the comment, features and sport sections. These are in turn balanced by the pages of classifieds, stairlift offers and suchlike at the back of the book.
Editors may not have a say in setting the advertising-editorial ratio, but they will definitely be involved in discussions over the principles of shape and disposition - whether there should be an ad on the front, what is the maximum acceptable size, where clear pages should be guaranteed.
These ground rules will also establish the minimum number of editorial columns for each section of the paper, depending on the size of the issue. Once the sales team has an idea of how many ads it is likely to sell for a particular day, the size of the paper will be determined and everyone can start planning. In the early part of the week, papers will be smaller, but they will grow as advertisers pile in to pitch their sofas and designer watches to weekend shoppers.
In this stage of planning, the commercial department holds sway - within the accepted guidelines. If it fails to sell enough ads, the paper will shrink until it hits the smallest size deemed acceptable to put on a news stand. If it sells more, the paper will grow and keep growing. This can result in monster papers around holiday weekends when news is thin on the ground. No one can afford to turn away advertising, so editorial is required to fill whatever space is thrown at it. That is why you see long essays about architecture or archaeology. And big pictures, often of cuddly animals.
So much for the basics.
Businesses obviously want to reach readers who might be interested in their products, so they will seek advertising space in the most advantageous slots and the sales reps will help them on this. The personal finance pages on a Saturday (and midweek in some papers) attract many ads, especially towards the end of the financial year when people are thinking about ISAs, for example. The ads will be sold on the understanding that they will appear on these pages.
This, if you like, is the base level of collusion between the commercial and editorial departments. The same applies to the gambling ads that turn up in sport. The advertiser knows roughly what the editorial content will be, but has no influence over it.
All sections of a paper tend to have a flow, so it's relatively easy to work out where the football or cricket or small investor coverage will be and to place the ad accordingly. It's still a gamble, though. You can get the ad for your blockbuster on the film review page, but you have to accept that the critic might slate it.
When it comes to the news pages, the wall between editorial and advertising has traditionally been higher. Sometimes a request will come in that a particular news story that the advertiser knows is likely to be covered - a new Harry Potter book or iPhone for example - should appear on their page. That is a step too far - or was when I was last planning papers. The advertiser would be told they could take their chances, but that there were no guarantees. Every effort would then be made when building the paper to ensure that the desired story did not feature on that page.
The more subtle and savvy advertiser/sales rep would make a calculated guess where a story might appear, but this tends to work only with big stories that are likely to spread across several pages, such as a political scandal.
One exception to the strict separation rule would be in times of disaster, when ads from the Disasters Emergency Committee and some other charities would be accepted on designated pages.
Up until five or ten years ago, it would not be unusual for editorial to throw out or move an ad if it sat uncomfortably with the news on a given page. That tended to be in everybody's interests: BA no more wants its ad on a page devoted to an air crash than the journalist placing the story. This may still be the case, although I suspect that these days pressure would be on editorial to reposition the story rather than the other way about.
If so, that is an example of fissures starting to appear in that dividing wall. If a story, however insignificant, has to move from its optimum position in the paper because of advertising considerations, a line has been crossed.
Selling space has become much harder in the past decade and advertisers have taken advantage of the buyers' market to become more demanding. This is why we have seen sponsored editions, wraparounds and advertising spreads on pages 2 and 3 - unheard of even a couple of years ago. Nor are clients content to see their ads neatly tucked at the bottom edge of the page, so we now have ugly ads up, down and across pages so that the reader has to work hard to see the news.
These are an unwelcome progression from the familiar 33x5 (broadsheet) or 25x4 (tabloid) ads that leave a small space for editorial. Whatever the state of the market, businesses know that readers buy newspapers for news, not advertising and that they are more likely to pause on a page with editorial content than on one with a full-page ad. The new ugly ads allow them to dominate a page without buying so much space.
Advertising supplements containing editorial have also changed. Twenty years ago "special reports" on a particular subject would be produced with staff journalists providing the copy. Such editorial departments have disappeared, but the supplements still appear, with the "editorial" copy provided by a unit within the commercial department. In a way that's more honest. But some expect journalists from the paper to contribute.
In the past ads that mimicked the design of the paper would be rejected or have ADVERTISEMENT in bold across the top. Now we have a whole new world of "native" advertising whose very purpose is to look like the rest of the paper (or social media news stream or whatever).
Never, until now, however, have we heard of advertisers dictating what stories should or should not appear in a newspaper. It is not in their interests to do so, for if readers become aware of unsuitably positive - or absent - coverage, they will no more trust the advertiser than the paper. The Oborne essay will therefore have damaged HSBC every bit as much as it will the Telegraph.
This, from Andrew Neil's book Full Disclosure (you can read a longer excerpt from Vanity Fair here), shows how it should be done:
From today's papers and online
I had huge reservations.
When I first thought about doing it, I decided not to, because I’m conscious that there are countless wonderful journalists there, reporters and writers who do a brilliant job. And I am extremely troubled by the idea of bringing bad publicity to the Telegraph. I love the Telegraph. But I feel I love it more than the owners. And when I watched last week’s HSBC coverage, I changed my mind.
- Peter Oborne talking to the Guardian
Wonderful. I’ve never been professionally happier than I was in those four years working on Boris Johnson’s Spectator. It was glorious fun
- Peter Oborne talking to Press Gazette
There is no question that the private sector is an insecure way of financing a free press that does not make money. But all other ways are worse. Online has not wiped out print. It has enhanced the penetration and prominence of both. In which case, we can only thank goodness for expediency. The only champion of a free press is not some regulator or commission or charter board. It is the free press itself. Plurality, rivalry, disclosure, exposure and sometimes fury are the best guardians. That is what we saw this week. One Oborne is worth 10 Levesons.
- Simon Jenkins,
We live in a time when most of our leading newspapers think nothing of lying to their readers and concealing the truth from them.
When they get caught, as they have been time and time again, they pay up quietly (if there’s a bill) while their supposed rivals, instead of holding them up to public scrutiny, cover up for them. And then they lie again.
This is not exaggeration. Just watch how the Telegraph now treats Oborne. Truth won’t have much to do with it. - Brian Cathcart
Phone hacking was just one of many unethical practices which have done incalculable damage to the reputation of the British press. We welcome Peter Oborne’s brave decision to resign and tell readers what he believes has gone wrong at one of this country’s most influential newspapers.
The case for ending the system in which editors and owners effectively regulate themselves without independent audit – currently in the guise of IPSO – has never been stronger.
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