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Tony Gallagher descended to his office — defeated. The workaholic editor of the Daily Telegraph, widely praised for his role in scoops that exposed MPs’ expense claims, had just been fired. “I’m being sacked because I’m good,” he told his lieutenants. Then he pocketed a last Telegraph memento, a piece of the Black Hawk helicopter damaged in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s house in Pakistan, and walked out of the newsroom for the last time, while staff banged their fists on their desks in a Fleet Street ritual.
Losing one editor is not considered careless in the newspaper industry. Losing five within a decade is, especially at Britain’s most establishment title. In recent times the Telegraph has appeared to be in a permanent state of revolution. It has brought in digital gurus only to sideline them months later. It has culled some of its best journalists, the men and occasionally women who had formed its conservative backbone. On top of this, it is facing the biggest threat to its credibility in living memory.
Last month, Peter Oborne, the newspaper’s chief political commentator, resigned, accusing it of censoring articles on HSBC to avoid losing the bank’s advertising. “Imagine if the BBC — so often the object of Telegraph attack — had conducted itself in this way,” Oborne wrote in a long article on the website OpenDemocracy. “The Telegraph would have been contemptuous. It would have insisted that heads should roll, and rightly so.”
This was no longer just a Fleet Street wobble: it was, said Meredith Levien, an executive at the New York Times, “a cautionary tale about what the end looks like”.
Some observers view the Telegraph’s tumult as a parable of Fleet Street in decline. As print circulations fade and internet giants compete for ad budgets, they argue that newspapers will employ fewer journalists and become subservient to their remaining advertisers. But even if the scenario is that bleak, the Telegraph is well placed. It is the UK’s biggest-selling and most lucrative quality daily. Operating profits are nearly £60m a year, not far behind those of the Daily Mail, which sells three times as many copies. Telegraph readers are old but they are also highly sought-after by advertisers. (The paper has been known to describe families with an income of more than £100,000 a year as “middle-class”.) The newspaper has produced some of Britain’s best journalism, including recent investigations into how Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, and on how two former foreign secretaries allegedly traded their connections for cash.
In practice, the Telegraph’s tale seems a rather more idiosyncratic one. It is the struggle of a conservative bastion, once the home of John Betjeman’s paeans to Victorian architecture, to find its place in the online world — and of an organisation trying to manage the changes this brings. It is a big task in an age in which titles desperately seek online readers (“Stop! You’ve been peeling oranges all wrong,” Telegraph website, March 23), and dilute their print editions (“Britons too quick to drink their tea,” Telegraph front page, March 17). And it is raising big questions about what the paper is for. “A cynic might suggest that the Telegraph is for people who think they want a serious newspaper but really don’t,” says Max Hastings, who was the paper’s editor between 1986 and 1995. What does this mean in a world of Facebook, BuzzFeed and YouTube?
At the heart of the Telegraph’s attempts to answer that question is Murdoch MacLennan, a softly-spoken Scot who has spent four decades climbing to the top of Britain’s newspaper industry. In a business full of talkers, MacLennan, 65, has been a doer. After starting out as a graduate trainee at the Scotsman, he worked at the Mirror Group, Express Newspapers and the Daily Mail. His jobs were all backstage — renegotiating printing contracts, moving offices, shedding staff. He is, according to one of the many employees fired by him, “the loveliest guy. He’s also the most ruthless guy I’ve ever known.”
MacLennan arrived at the Telegraph in 2004 as chief executive, lured by its new owners, the identical twins Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, who paid £665m for the newspaper, outbidding some of the world’s biggest private equity groups. Since then he has been the link connecting the brothers’ ambitions with the editorial reality of its journalists. For someone who dictates long emails via his personal assistant rather than typing them out, the digital revolution was always going to be a challenge. “He knows he has to do something,” says one former Telegraph employee of MacLennan. “He doesn’t know what he has to do.”
No newspaper had an answer but some had plans. The Guardian and Mail Online built distinctive voices in search of mass global audiences and ad revenues. The Times introduced digital subscriptions, including sport rights. What was the Telegraph’s strategy? MacLennan turned to gurus. He employed one chief information officer, who outsourced tech development, then replaced him with another, who did the opposite.
In 2012, he solicited advice from Jeff Jarvis, a US internet evangelist who hates newspaper paywalls, and Patrick Barwise, a British academic who does not. Senior people at the Telegraph became increasingly convinced that MacLennan was lost. At one digital presentation, he asked whether he should buy a high-definition TV. “It was like watching your grandad dancing,” says one former journalist. “It was embarrassing.”
But MacLennan is not to be underestimated. He outlasted Will Lewis, the Telegraph’s ambitious editor between 2006 and 2010, who thought that he could supplant the Scotsman as chief executive after winning the Barclays’ backing for a digital incubator that he hoped would be a springboard to the top job. He also outlasted Lewis’s replacement as editor. Tony Gallagher wanted the Telegraph to build on its coverage of the 2009 expenses scandal by building a new politics operation, inspired by Politico, the site beloved of Washington DC insiders. The division would have cost £400,000; it was never approved. (Politico itself is launching next month in Europe, hiring more than 40 journalists.)
MacLennan offered Gallagher a strategic role, overseeing the Telegraph’s content. Gallagher, a newshound with debatable affection for online, wasn’t interested. The chief executive quickly moved to isolate his editor. He assembled a panel of senior journalists to visit media companies in Asia, the US and Europe. “Essentially it was a ploy to cut Tony off at the knees. The problem was it wasn’t well thought through,” says one person familiar with the project.
It took nearly a year for the project’s leaders to come up with a plan — the Five Pillars. Unimpressed, some staff quickly renamed them the Five Pillocks. But MacLennan had already found a new guru, Jason Seiken. Of all the characters to have ended up at the Telegraph’s Victoria offices, the tall, bald Seiken is among the most unlikely. A former digital strategist at the Washington Post and at PBS, he had no experience of British newspapers. The Telegraph’s traditions were royalty, foxhunting and tweed; Seiken, jokes one US media executive, “would have needed the parliamentary system explained to him”.
Seiken arrived in November 2013 and set about remaking the Telegraph in his own image. He brought in a handful of senior American associates. The Five Pillars, presented only weeks earlier, were quickly rubble. He also organised a staff survey, in which reporters vented their frustration with the newspaper’s senior editors. In early 2014, he gave MacLennan a diagnosis. The Telegraph’s identity was confused. Its reporters were stifled. The online world, built on disparate interests and reader engagement, could not fit with the Telegraph’s top-down approach. Days later, Gallagher was fired.
Seiken, now established as the newspaper’s key editorial figure, took his vision to the Telegraph’s staff. “We don’t practise ‘commodity journalism’. We are not the Huffington Post, we are not BuzzFeed, we are not Mail Online.” he told them. “It all sounded very good,” says one reporter.
Seiken’s job title was “chief content officer and editor-in-chief”. On old Fleet Street, “content” was something journalists felt after lunch. Today it suggests a whole new approach to what newspapers should be producing, and how they should be producing it.
First, it means different forms — not just articles, but live blogs, videos, podcasts, graphics. Second, it encompasses news sources — readers can write comments, and direct the paper’s coverage. Third, and less precisely, it seems to imply a shift from what might be considered newsworthy — to anything that readers might click on. “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet,” Bill Gates had said in 1996. Eventually his words had reached the Barclays.
There was a problem. Although Seiken was chief content officer, he never tried to run the newsroom. He flew a drone around a seminar of advertisers. He urged the Telegraph to fail more. Meanwhile, reporters wondered what this meant for tomorrow’s front page.
Occasionally, his ideas would filter through, particularly his desire to plan ahead for big stories. To mark coverage of the European elections in 2014, an ally of Seiken’s suggested running interviews with an immigrant from each EU state. One person involved remembers thinking: “Hold on, at the moment that Ukip seems to be making inroads, we’re going to go pro-Europe? It produced some good content. It just wasn’t very Telegraph.”
Worse was to follow. Under Seiken, the Telegraph bought the rights to “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, a short story by Hilary Mantel. Nothing could antagonise the Telegraph’s core readers more: again, MacLennan moved quickly to cover himself. Barely eight months after he had jettisoned Gallagher, he banished Seiken to an upstairs office at the Telegraph’s Victoria headquarters. Reporters went weeks without seeing the supposed editor-in-chief.
Editorial control has passed to Chris Evans, a former Daily Mail journalist, who has consolidated his position — without articulating his vision for the Telegraph. MacLennan has continued to appoint more digital executives, creating overlapping job descriptions without explanation. “They’ve sewn conflict into the structure,” says one former employee. “Murdoch just likes to keep people guessing.”
Another person caught up in the turmoil puts it succinctly. “It’s more of a political organisation than a company.”
MacLennan may not have produced a strategy, or allowed an editor to come up with a vision but he has delivered profits. Since 2004, the Barclays have received £360m from the Telegraph before tax, while Rupert Murdoch’s Times has lost more than £430m. Even so, the brothers have still made barely half their initial investment back.
MacLennan’s first tactic was cutting costs. “You’d come in in the morning and the person next to you had gone,” said a former employee. Increasingly, the newsroom was populated by reporters in their twenties. The Guardian employs about 900 editorial staff, the Telegraph about 600. More than 50 journalists left at the end of 2014.
Another tactic was to placate advertisers. The Telegraph is instinctively pro-business — it was born from a tax break, having first published weeks after the British government abolished stamp duty on newspapers in 1855. But MacLennan’s interests were more naked. When HSBC complained vigorously about an article in 2014, MacLennan lobbied editors to take it down.
In 2011 MacLennan had told the Leveson inquiry into media ethics that he did not determine which stories the Telegraph published. But former employees say his interventions — phone calls, meetings, words in the ear — were so brazen that senior editors advised him to be more discreet. “He was given red flashing warnings repeatedly,” says one former journalist. “He brushed them aside.”
“No subject, no story, no person and no organisation is off-limits to our journalists,” said the Telegraph in its response to Peter Oborne’s allegations. But, under MacLennan, journalists felt otherwise. “It wasn’t just commercial striking down editorial. There was huge self-censorship,” said one former employee. In November 2014, other newspapers wrote about how ceramic poppies from the Tower of London had been broken by a delivery company. But the Telegraph did not. The company, Yodel, was owned by the Barclays.
According to a Telegraph spokesperson, claims that MacLennan did not understand digital, had refused to invest in Tony Gallagher’s Politico-style offering and had interfered in editorial matters to benefit advertisers were “malicious falsehoods”. The distinction between editorial and commercial was, continued the spokesperson, “fundamental”.
“Newspapers,” says Tim Luckhurst, a former editor of the Scotsman, “need a collective memory of their traditions, their achievements and their relationships with their readers.”
The rise of the internet has challenged those collective memories. No newspaper in the world can claim to have found a lasting digital business model. So titles once built on tight ideology have become broad churches to attract more visitors. The Telegraph’s tenets — euroscepticism, trust in institutions, defence of rural life — occasionally fit uneasily with the online world. But, in the eyes of many readers and journalists, it is these values, rather than cost-cutting, that will ensure the Telegraph survives.
Under the Barclays, annual profits have taken precedence. The paper’s problem is not that there have been too many editorial visions but too few. Gallagher’s plans were curbed; Seiken’s ideas were vague. In 2009, the Telegraph and the Guardian were level in terms of web traffic. Five years on, the Guardian (though lossmaking and without the Telegraph’s easily hurdled paywall) has surged ahead, with about 7m browsers a day to the Telegraph’s 4m. A new strategic plan, prepared by Seiken, suggests that subscriptions and advertising revenue will continue to fall at the Telegraph; the paper must diversify to avoid having to cut more journalists.
Peter Oborne’s revelations may prove a turning point. The loss of a key columnist, the scrutiny on the Barclays’ business dealings, the public embarrassment, were all hugely unwelcome. According to journalists at the paper, fewer sensitive stories have been censored since: even coverage of HSBC has been noisy. At a town hall-style meeting with staff this month, editor Chris Evans emphasised a separation between commercial and editorial. “We’re not taking questions about the past,” he said. “We’re only taking questions about the future.” There are plenty of those.
Henry Mance is the FT’s media correspondent
Photographs: Rex; Getty Images