SWISS prosecutors have launched an investigation into alleged money-laundering at HSBC’s subsidiary in Switzerland amid claims that the banking giant sought to deter newspapers from publishing critical stories by pulling advertising.
Officials from the prosecutor’s office in Geneva have searched the offices of HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) SA in the city in a further blow for the bank which has been left reeling by claims that it helped thousands of wealth clients avoid tax.
The investigation into “suspected aggravated money-laundering” is said to be focused on allegations that the bank helped to hide millions of dollars for drug traffickers and arms dealers.
It follows an analysis carried out by a group of international media organisations - including the Guardian and BBC’s Panorama - of thousands of bank documents leaked by a whistleblower.
The files were originally passed to the French authorities by Herve Falciani, a former HSBC employee, in 2008 and a version of the data was subsequently obtained by French newspaper Le Monde.
In a statement, HSBC said it was co-operating with the latest Swiss inquiry.
“We have cooperated continuously with the Swiss authorities since first becoming aware of the data theft in 2008 and we continue to cooperate,” the statement said.
The disclosure came after former Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne suggested HSBC may be attempting to suppress free speech by pulling advertisements from newspapers that publish negative stories about it.
Mr Oborne, who said last night that he had quit as the Telegraph’s chief political commentator over the issue, accused his former paper of downplaying stories about HSBC because it is a major advertiser.
In response, the Telegraph said it utterly rejected Mr Oborne’s claims, which it said were full of inaccuracies.
Mr Oborne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There has been a series of stories which look very much as if poor editorial judgment has been exercised and they tend to affect significant advertisers.”
He claimed he had raised his concerns with management but “they didn’t show any interest in my questions and I resigned from the paper but I just said I’d go quietly”.
He went on: “But last week was such a terrible example of this - BBC Panorama’s investigation into HSBC’s Swiss banking arm was just not really covered in the Telegraph...”
Meanwhile The Guardian has alleged that HSBC put its own advertising account “on pause” as negotiations were continuing over last week’s series of stories about the Swiss banking arm.
Mr Oborne said it looked as though the bank was using advertising to suppress free speech.
He said: “HSBC did the same thing with the Telegraph. There’s a pattern developing here that when HSBC was being investigated, the advertising dries up.
“It looks to an outsider very much as if it is using advertising as a tool to suppress free speech.
“They need to explain why they suspended their advertising in the Guardian last week and in the Telegraph for a year.”
In an article on the Open Democracy website, Mr Oborne claimed the Telegraph suppressed stories about HSBC from the start of 2013 onwards after its investigation team published a series of articles about the bank’s accounts in Jersey in late 2012.
He said HSBC suspended advertising with the Telegraph and the reporters involved in the investigation were asked to destroy all material relating to it.
He went on: “This was the pivotal moment. From the start of 2013 onwards, stories critical of HSBC were discouraged.”
Mr Oborne said that after a year the HSBC advertising account was restored but since then stories critical of the bank have received minor coverage when compared with other news outlets.
In a response to Mr Oborne’s article, the Telegraph said: “Your questions are full of inaccuracies, and we do not therefore intend to respond to them.
“More generally, like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear.
“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.”
HSBC refused to comment on Mr Oborne’s remarks.