On Tuesday 17 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 9 February and the following Sunday (out of 2,047 articles published on the Telegraph website during that time). This was less 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 less than a quarter of those published by the Guardian (who broke the story) and the Daily Mail (Figure 1).
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 11 and Thursday 12 February. On the Wednesday, coverage was largely based on exchanges on the matter during Prime Minister’s Questions, consisting of:
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:
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 10 February to Sunday 15 February (the Telegraph published no articles on HSBC on Monday when the story broke), consist of the following:
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.
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.
Post by Dr Gordon Ramsay, Research Fellow, Media Standards Trust and Visiting Research Fellow, The Policy Institute at King’s