Do advertisers hold too much power over the press?

Are Peter Oborne's allegations about HSBC and the Telegraph symptomatic of a wider problem, Arif Durrani asks.

It was already a heady mix. Falling print circulations and shrinking advertising revenues have led to our 250-year-old national press sector opening its doors to an unprecedented array of commercial opportunities over the past decade.

One by one, things once considered strictly off limits have become part of the mix. From the rise of sponsored content to the introduction of new advertising formats, an embattled sector has made itself increasingly flexible.

This is far from a UK-only development. It was at the height of the recession six years ago when The New York Times began selling front-page display ads for the first time. CBS, the US broad­caster, was the first to take advantage of the coveted new-found placement.

From Guardian Labs, Metro’s Story and News UK’s The Newsroom to, most recently, the Telegraph’s Spark, the rise of dedicated content marketing divisions within newspapers has been another defining trend of our time. Advertisers, spurred by their agencies, increasingly want their campaigns to go native.

Amid this desire to move ever closer to editorial, it’s perhaps not so surprising that all of the UK’s biggest-circulating magazines are now either solely funded by advertising (and distributed freely) or entirely owned and published by a single brand.

Advertisers and agencies have widely welcomed the new opportunities. The deep, engaged relationships millions of readers have with their favourite news publications remains highly attractive for brands.

The Daily Telegraph has often been applauded by the commercial sector for being among today’s most pro­gressive publishers. Despite its conservative heartland and older readership, it has been proactive in experimenting with new solutions while respecting the value of its quality, independent content.

So last week’s allegations by Peter Oborne about how the Telegraph’s biggest advertisers are impacting editorial coverage cut deep. Not only does it ratchet-up historic tensions between commercial and editorial, but it risks making the public distrust any commercial partnerships in the press at a time when they are needed more than ever.

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