Bravery is rare in British journalism these days. Compared to trailblazing colleagues like Maria Ressa in the Philippines or the 67 journalists currently imprisoned in China, the risks we take are pathetically small.
However, one person shortlisted for this year’s Orwell Prize for Journalism stands out – if not for bravery, then at least for badly-needed audacity and precision. And for delivering uncomfortable truths that the powerful don’t want to hear.
Peter Oborne is nominated this year for three pieces published by openDemocracy during the bitter struggle over Brexit. His first, ‘I was a strong Brexiteer, now we must swallow our pride and think again’, details his painful decision to switch sides in the toxic war which defines our recent political history, and will shape our future.
But here’s the rub. Oborne offered this powerful, persuasive piece to several major UK outlets before openDemocracy. (He’s a former political commentator at the Spectator, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail). No one wanted it.
The same thing happened the second time, too. ‘British journalists have become part of Boris Johnson’s fake news machine’ is a forensic dismantling of the capture of our press by the current British government: a careful, detailed account of how leading political journalists – from the BBC to the Mail – have been manipulated into publishing government lies and propaganda as news. Again and again.
Not only did several outlets turn it down, one editor even admitted his reluctance on the grounds that his political team had cultivated “excellent insider sources”. An admission with devastating implications.
Once again, openDemocracy stepped up. Oborne will be embarrassed by my describing his decision to go ahead with us as ‘brave’. But I think it was. Soon after we published, he parted ways with his then employer, the Daily Mail.
He has, you see, a long track record of saying necessary and important things, even when it comes at some personal cost. Back in 2015 he announced his resignation from The Daily Telegraph on openDemocracy, after discovering that the paper had suppressed negative reporting on banking giant HSBC, a major advertiser with the paper. Describing the incident as a “fraud on readers”, he wrote: “If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”
Later that year, Oborne also took on the controversy over the Muslim advocacy group Cage, arguing that the Charity Commission’s “unprecedented moves to block funds from Cage raises troubling questions for public debate in Britain.”
I could point to many more examples, but I’ll mention only his final Orwell-nominated piece: ‘As a lifelong Conservative, here’s why I can’t vote for Boris Johnson’. The third act in a thoughtful political journey during the Brexit years, it draws on his deep understanding of the roots and principles of Conservatism.
There are a number of other strong contenders for this year’s Orwell prize. Aditya Chakrobarty, John Harris and John Domokos have all lifted the voices of those without power. Peter Foster’s well sourced, carefully written pieces in the Telegraph (plus his forensic tweet threads) are important chronicles of our political times. I’m also proud to say that, in previous years, openDemocracy colleagues like the excellent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekamni have been shortlisted for the same award.
But what makes Oborne’s entry stand out is that so many other outlets refused to publish the pieces he’s now nominated for. One must assume it’s because they disagreed with him, or because it wasn’t politically convenient. That’s a damning indictment of large parts of our press, and of our wider political culture.
Oborne’s writing consistently exposes what Orwell called the “mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia” that characterises politics. But it does so for a noble purpose. I don’t agree with many of Oborne’s political views; that’s not the point. His journalism seeks, as Orwell’s did, to “alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” Orwell wrote in his proposed preface to Animal Farm.
That’s why we’re proud to publish Peter Oborne on openDemocracy. It’s why I encourage you to read all the articles I’ve mentioned today. And it’s why, if you think openDemocracy should continue publishing voices that others won’t – many with far less status and privilege than Peter Oborne – we’d be grateful for your support.