One of the most respected journalists at the Daily Telegraph has resigned from his role following claims the reporters were "discouraged" from writing negative stories about HSBC.
Peter Oborne, the Telegraph's senior political commentator, described at castigating length a litany of reasons why he decided to leave the paper after five years in the prestigious role.
"On Monday of last week, BBC Panorama ran its story about HSBC and its Swiss banking arm, alleging a wide-scale tax evasion scheme, while the Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published their 'HSBC files'. All newspapers realised at once that this was a major event. The FT splashed on it for two days in a row, while the Times and the Mail gave it solid coverage spread over several pages.
"You needed a microscope to find the Telegraph coverage: nothing on Monday, six slim paragraphs at the bottom left of page two on Tuesday, seven paragraphs deep in the business pages on Wednesday. The Telegraph's reporting only looked up when the story turned into claims that there might be questions about the tax affairs of people connected to the Labour party."
Perhaps most critical was his anger at the paper frequently pulling stories critical of the banking giant, with the first episode occurring in 2014 when a group of British Muslims had received letters out from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed with no apparent reason.
Oborne citied his frustration with Britain's best selling quality newspaper seemingly wilfully ignoring the HSBC Swiss leaks tax scandal, which he described as "a form of fraud on its readers".
In a post for Open Democracy, Oborne said:
On 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1bn for customer compensation and an investigation into the rigging of currency markets.
"This story was the city splash in the Times, Guardian and Mail, making a page lead in the Independent. I inspected the Telegraph coverage. It generated five paragraphs in total on page 5 of the business section.
"Last week I made another discovery. Three years ago the Telegraph investigations team — the same lot who carried out the superb MPs' expenses investigation — received a tip off about accounts held with HSBC in Jersey. Essentially this investigation was similar to the Panorama investigation into the Swiss banking arm of HSBC. After three months research the Telegraph resolved to publish. Six articles on this subject can now be found online, between 8 and 15 November 2012, although three are not available to view.
"Thereafter no fresh reports appeared. Reporters were ordered to destroy all emails, reports and documents related to the HSBC investigation. I have now learnt, in a remarkable departure from normal practice, that at this stage lawyers for the Barclay brothers became closely involved. When I asked the Telegraph why the Barclay brothers were involved, it declined to comment.
"This was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged. HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is 'the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend'.
Elsewhere, Oborne also criticised the direction the paper has gone in recent years, from "decimating" the foreign news desk, to the "collapse in standards" for publishing stories about a three-breasted women online despite knowing it was false for the sole purpose of web traffic.
He also lamented the "wave of sackings" seen at the paper in recent years, including the "dismaying" departure of editor Tony Gallagher.
He was replaced by American Jason Seiken. "The arrival of Mr Seiken coincided with the arrival of the click culture," said Oborne. "Stories seemed no longer judged by their importance, accuracy or appeal to those who actually bought the paper. The more important measure appeared to be the number of online visits.
"On 22 September Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. One despairing executive told me that it was known this was false even before the story was published....over the long term such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper."
He added: "A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth."
The Telegraph has hit back at Oborne's claims, calling them "unfounded".
"Like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear," a spokesperson said.
"We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business.
"We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary. It is a matter of huge regret that Peter Oborne, for nearly five years a contributor to the Telegraph, should have launched such an astonishing and unfounded attack, full of inaccuracy and innuendo, on his own paper."