Murdoch MacLennan's conflict of interest isn't the issue, he is!

Overnight there seemed to be quite a spat surrounding the perceived 'conflict of interest' of SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan after it was announced that he had been appointed as a non-executive chairman of Dublin-based Independent News and Media PLC - which is part owned by Celtic majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and his long term associate Denis O'Brien.

MacLennan replaced Ralph Topping as SPFL chairman in August 2017, with chief executive Neil Doncaster at the time saying: “Murdoch brings with him a wealth of top-level business and media experience and has been at the cutting edge of the digital revolution as CEO and now deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group. He demonstrated a real passion for the role and a clear insight into the opportunities and challenges we will face in the years ahead.

“There was very strong interest in the role from a host of highly-qualified candidates, but Murdoch was the board’s unanimous choice and we look forward to working with him as we continue to drive the game to even greater success in Scotland.”

Now you may think that his appointment at Independent News and Media PLC was a recent thing - but he joined their board in March 2018, succeeding Leslie Buckley who stepped down at the company's EGM on the 1st March. An appointment that was announced across numerous media outlets at the time, despite the Record's Keith Jackson claiming he can reveal. A two second Google search reveals all.

So why has it only now been highlighted? Has it got to do with Rangers chairman Dave King's demands that the Scottish FA suspend director Gary Hughes after he called Rangers fans 'the great unwashed' in a trade magazine article 12 years ago?

I suspect the story has been planted to oust certain members of the Scottish Football hierarchy who could be potentially be perceived as anti-Rangers and replaced by partisan board members. After all Jackson's article follows on from the state aid nutter's highlight of MacLennan's alleged conflict of interest.

The SPFL declared to the Record that they were fully aware of MacLennan's new role, a statement read: “Murdoch informed the SPFL board in advance of taking up a board position with Independent News & Media Group of Ireland. This followed him stepping down from his role as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group. There is no conflict of interest between Murdoch’s role with INM and his role with the SPFL.”

Despite the perceived 'conflict of interest' not being an issue for the SPFL, he still shouldn't be anywhere near the SPFL chairmanship - especially given how he ran the Telegraph Media Group.

Sometimes in the world of newspapers the departure of a leading executive makes the air seem a lot fresher all of a sudden

The heading was a tweet posted by former Telegraph columnist Tim Walker in the wake of Murdoch MacLennan stepping down as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group following his appointment to the SPFL board. It says a lot in itself - despite Walker not specifically naming MacLennan.

MacLennan, who headed up the Telegraph business for around 13 years, was responsible for a succession of cost-cutting decisions with hundreds of journalists being sacked as he forced the paper to become a digital brand rather than print.

During his time at the Telegraph, MacLennan was seen as one of the most influential and powerful figures in British media, but his meddling in editorial coverage of the paper to safeguard commercial interests angered many employees and saw the paper's chief political commentator quit in disgust and publicly criticise the paper and MacLennan at length.

Telegraph's Fraudulent coverage under MacLennan

Peter Oborne claimed that the Telegraph's coverage of HSBC's tax affairs was fraudulent and that it was influenced by the fear of losing advertising revenue.

Speaking to Channel 4 news in the wake of his resignation, Oborne said: "The Telegraph needs to explain to us why its coverage of HSBC has been skewed, and the really important people who it should explain this to are the readers of the Daily Telegraph.

"I've had so many conversations with Telegraph staff. I believe I am speaking for the vast majority of Telegraph staff that we have no confidence in the chief executive Murdoch MacLennan and I'd go further than that and say we have no confidence at all in the Barclay brothers who own the paper."

According to Oborne, MacLennan was 'determined' not to allow negative stories about HSBC to appear in the paper and he allowed advertising to affect editorial.

The collapse in standards at the Telegraph, according to Oborne on OpenDemocracy, heralded a 'more sinister development'.

He said: "It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.

"....I set to work on a story about the international banking giant HSBC. Well-known British Muslims had received letters out of the blue from HSBC informing them that their accounts had been closed. No reason was given, and it was made plain that there was no possibility of appeal. "It’s like having your water cut off," one victim told me.

"When I submitted it for publication on the Telegraph website, I was at first told there would be no problem. When it was not published I made enquiries. I was fobbed off with excuses, then told there was a legal problem. When I asked the legal department, the lawyers were unaware of any difficulty. When I pushed the point, an executive took me aside and said that "there is a bit of an issue" with HSBC.

"I researched the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC. I learnt that Harry Wilson, the admirable banking correspondent of the Telegraph, had published an online story about HSBC based on a report from a Hong Kong analyst who had claimed there was a ‘black hole’ in the HSBC accounts. This story was swiftly removed from the Telegraph website, even though there were no legal problems. When I asked HSBC whether the bank had complained about Wilson's article, or played any role in the decision to remove it, the bank declined to comment.

"Then, on 4 November 2014, a number of papers reported a blow to HSBC profits as the bank set aside more than £1 billion 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.

"The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year the Telegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.

"On 17 September there was a four-page fashion pull-out in the middle of the news run, granted more coverage than the Scottish referendum. The Tesco false accounting story on 23 September was covered only in the business section. By contrast it was the splash, inside spread and leader in the Mail. Not that the Telegraph is short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging £10m to fight cancer, an inside peak at Tesco’s £35m jet and ‘Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years’ were all deemed newsworthy.

"There are other very troubling cases, many of them set out in Private Eye, which has been a major source of information for Telegraph journalists wanting to understand what is happening on their paper. There was no avoiding the impression that something had gone awry with the Telegraph’s news judgment."

PeterOborne-1.jpg

Oborne added that: "Mr MacLennan agreed that advertising was allowed to affect editorial, but was unapologetic, saying that 'it was not as bad as all that' and adding that there was a long history of this sort of thing at the Telegraph.

"I have since consulted Charles Moore, the last editor of the Telegraph before the Barclays bought the paper in 2004. Mr Moore confessed that the published accounts of Hollinger Inc, then the holding company for the Telegraph, did not receive the scrutiny they deserved. But no newspaper in history has ever given an unfavourable gloss on its owner’s accounts. Beyond that, Mr Moore told me, there had been no advertising influence on the paper’s news coverage.

"....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.

"After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public. There are two powerful reasons. The first concerns the future of the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers. It might sound a pompous thing to say, but I believe the newspaper is a significant part of Britain’s civic architecture. It is the most important public voice of civilised, sceptical conservatism.

"Telegraph readers are intelligent, sensible, well-informed people. They buy the newspaper because they feel that they can trust it. If advertising priorities are allowed to determine editorial judgements, how can readers continue to feel this trust? 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. Imagine if the BBC—so often the object of Telegraph attack—had conducted itself in this way. The Telegraph would have been contemptuous. It would have insisted that heads should roll, and rightly so.

"This brings me to a second and even more important point that bears not just on the fate of one newspaper but on public life as a whole. 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.

"It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here. The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media. The criminality of News International newspapers during the phone hacking years was a particularly grotesque example of this wholly malign phenomenon. All the newspaper groups, bar the magnificent exception of the Guardian, maintained a culture of omerta around phone-hacking, even if (like the Telegraph) they had not themselves been involved. One of the consequences of this conspiracy of silence was the appointment of Andy Coulson, who has since been jailed and now faces further charges of perjury, as director of communications in 10 Downing Street.

"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”. HSBC today refused to comment when I asked whether the bank's decision to stop advertising with the Telegraph was connected in any way with the paper's investigation into the Jersey accounts.

"Winning back the HSBC advertising account became an urgent priority. It was eventually restored after approximately 12 months. Executives say that Murdoch MacLennan was determined not to allow any criticism of the international bank. 'He would express concern about headlines even on minor stories,' says one former Telegraph journalist. 'Anything that mentioned money-laundering was just banned, even though the bank was on a final warning from the US authorities. This interference was happening on an industrial scale.

“An editorial operation that is clearly influenced by advertising is classic appeasement. Once a very powerful body know they can exert influence they know they can come back and threaten you. It totally changes the relationship you have with them. You know that even if you are robust you won’t be supported and will be undermined.”

Will MacLennan's 'commercial interests first' approach impact on the integrity of Scottish football? Given him having no qualms over editorial integrity taking a backseat to cash then I wouldn't put it past MacLennan to ditch the integrity of our game for a quick buck or two.

andycoulson.jpg

Long time friend of Phone Hacker Coulson

If putting commercial interests above the editorial integrity of one of Britain's most respected papers wasn't bad enough, MacLennan hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as a PR adviser for the paper.

Coulson started his PR firm after he was released from prison after being jailed for his part in the phone-hacking scandal and was handed the lucrative contract with the Telegraph Media Group by MacLennan - a long time friend of Coulson's and even gave evidence in court defending him.

MacLennan's Telegraph withheld Child Abuse emails

Another scandal to hit Murdoch MacLennan's Telegraph was the paper's withholding of emails that might harm its friends in the Conservative government. MacLennan is a long time supporter of the Tory party as is the Telegraph

According to Tom Watson, a Labour Party politician, the Telegraph's executive editor admitted that the paper 'holds internal email exchanges from senior officials at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters relating to child abuse. In so doing he contradicted Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, who told me that after reviewing the situation he hadn’t found “any evidence to substantiate” my claims that the emails exist'.

Watson, in his Huffington Post article, added: "The emails are so potentially damaging to Tory reputations that the political correspondent who was inadvertently copied in on them assumed the Telegraph would be publishing them, even assuring one MP that he was not the subject of the 'silly emails'. The paper is still sitting on the emails and, as far as I know, has not given them to Grant Shapps to read so that he can form a view of whether they amount to an attempt to smear Labour politicians, as at least one Telegraph insider has claimed."

MacLennan should be nowhere near the role

As I mentioned previously, the perceived 'conflict of interest' involving Murdoch MacLennan is not the issue - although I can see why they are highlighting such links given his past - it is the conduct of MacLennan and his beliefs that commercial interests take priority over everything else including integrity.

Questions must be asked of chief executive Neil Doncaster and the SPFL over why MacLennan was given the job in the first place - given his links to withholding child abuse emails involving the Tory party, his close association with criminal Andy Coulson and the Telegraph's 'fraudulent coverage' of companies that advertise with the paper.

The story of a 'conflict of interest' may have been planted to pile pressure on the SPFL to rid themselves of supposed 'anti-Rangers' bias, but if it sees MacLennan forced out, I for one will not be complaining.

This is not someone I would want to be one of the figureheads of Scottish Football - would you?

Last Ditch Tackle is unashamedly passionate about Scottish football, with a heavy Celtic slant.