The "Business Thinking 2010" campaign offered businesses the chance to share in £90 million of funding, and a financial reward of up to £100,000 each, courtesy of HSBC. It should come as no surprise to learn that Europe’s biggest bank understands the power of a good financial incentive.
As anyone working on the commercial side of the national press already knows, the Telegraph and HSBC have long enjoyed close ties. The bank spent about £1.15 million on advertising in the Telegraph in 2014, according to Nielsen – more than twice the amount it spent with the next national title, the Daily Express (£553,931). It is also more than it spent with The Times (£445,419), the Financial Times (£327,971) and The Independent (£243,971) combined.
But the relationship came under scrutiny last week after the Telegraph’s former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, delivered a scathing parting broadside accusing the paper of allowing the bank to unduly influence its editorial coverage. It is a fact that the Telegraph published far fewer stories about HSBC’s alleged tax-avoidance activities than its rivals. The only debatable point is: why?
'With the press more open for business, it's not surprising that journalists and the public question where the power lies'
For Oborne, the Telegraph’s actions amount to "a form of fraud on its readers". He asks, "If advertising priorities are allowed to determine editorial judgments, how can readers continue to feel this trust?" The paper, for its part, "utterly refutes" the suggestion but, with all areas of the press now open for commercial business like never before, perhaps it’s not surprising that both journalists and the public have started to question where the power lies.
As we know, competition is fierce. Advertising flowing into the sector has almost halved since 2007, from £1.6 billion to £900 million according to Group M figures. Meanwhile, the rise of dedicated content marketing divisions within newspapers has been another defining trend of our time; from Guardian Labs to Metro’s Story and News UK’s The Newsroom to, most recently, the Telegraph’s Spark. The climate is set. Outside of the traditional publishers, emerging digital rivals like Vice Media and Buzzfeed are similarly making strides by offering flexible, native advertising solutions.
News coverage has never been an exact science, and many millions of pounds are spent directly and indirectly trying to influence coverage every year. For the most part, concessions made around commercial deals are far more frivolous than allegations surrounding the Telegraph. News UK’s Procter & Gamble sponsorship around the London 2012 Olympics for example, is well-known at the publisher for having obliged the then Sunday Times editor, John Witherow, to run pictures of Jessica Ennis instead of Usain Bolt.
Over at The Guardian, there have been 346 commercial partnerships delivered in the past year alone. Some resulted in the publication of straightforward sponsored content but others, such as a project for Sky, included collating all the articles written across The Guardian to show they were generally more positive than press coverage elsewhere.
There is no mention of such a deal on the record. At best, it’s a clumsy initiative. I put this point to the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger: if journalists knew about such a deal, could it impact how they approached writing about the broadcaster? Rusbridger said that hacks, in his view, were more likely to react against it and write negative stories, before stressing the paper would have shared its findings with Sky regardless of the results.
I’m not suggesting any wrongdoing but, when things are moving so quickly, new grey areas crop up all the time. And the speed with which the press market has shifted has been striking.
Selling the front page
The first cover wrap for any paid national newspaper in modern times only landed six years ago, when the Daily Express carried an ad for Fiat with the strapline "It’s a big day for firsts". It was on 21 January 2009, the same day other papers around the world splashed on Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first black president of America.
The Fiat deal was handled by media agency MEC and is rumoured to have cost around £150,000, more than ten times the amount paid for a standard Express page at the time. Of course, the commercial concession was mercilessly mocked by its rivals, but it would have been noted too that the paper’s copy sales did not suffer that day.
Since then, every single British newspaper has carried coverwraps of their own, with the notable exception of the Daily Mail. One particularly disruptive campaign by Vodafone in October 2012 became the news when it was wrapped around the Telegraph, the Independent, the Guardian, and the i on the same day, completely dominating the newsstands.
But while new boundaries have been established, there is never anything forcing clients to continue to advertise with a particular news brand when the proverbial shit hits the fan, either. It is common practice for agencies to pull ads in an unfavourable climate, as the supermarkets did when news of the horse meat scandal broke, or as travel and tourism campaigns retreat after any aeroplane disaster.
HSBC pulling advertising from the Guardian since editorial suggestions it has been complicit in tax avoidance is not an attack on press freedom, it’s sound business sense. The environment is clearly not the best one in which to run a non-related marketing campaign. However, the Telegraph's decision to draw up new guidelines to better define the boundaries of our new commercially charged age is to be welcomed. Maintaining readers’ trust has to overridde any commercial gains.
Update: A spokesperson for News UK said: "Procter & Gamble sponsored an Olympic scrapbook that was distributed by our marketing department. It was a completely separate publication to the newspaper."