When you can’t believe or trust what you read, you are looking, as Thomas Jefferson put it, at a polluted vehicle.
This is George Osborne’s final week as editor of London’s Evening Standard. During his three year tenure, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer became the flagship newspaper’s polluter-in-chief. A cynical and ill-equipped editor who didn’t see the ethical conflict in offering big companies like Uber and Google a “money-can’t-buy” promise in return for favourable editorial coverage – duping readers into thinking they were reading news, when in fact they were reading advertorial.
Nor did he care that his con trick foisted on readers was exposed by openDemocracy and widely criticised. Labour’s then deputy-leader, Tom Watson, called it a “cash-for-column inches” scandal, and a “corporate fake news factory on a grand scale.” Journalists from across the political spectrum called for Osborne’s resignation.
Osborne simply ignored the public anger. And with the same hubris he displayed at the Treasury, simply postponed and rebranded the deception. As journalistic legacies go, that’s about as pathetic as they come.
The Russian owner of London’s commuter free-sheet, Alexander Lebedev, perhaps thought in 2017 that Osborne’s economic skills would help turn around a title already struggling. It was a seriously bad call.
No record in journalism
As the prime architect of a now-discredited fixation on austerity during the premiership of David Cameron, and after being dumped from Theresa May’s government, Osborne had no experience in journalism when he was announced as the new editor of London’s flagship newspaper.
His early decision to side with the commercial faction – already in the ascendancy inside the Standard – was probably to be expected. During his three years in the editor’s chair, Osborne continued his £650,000 a year advisory role for the investment fund, Blackrock. The conflict of interest was not subtle. Blackrock held a stake in Uber worth £500m and Osborne led the team that arranged a £500,000 commercial contract which involved the Standard delivering positive and favourable editorial. Shameful hardly does justice to this set-up.
He also remained chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Often absent for days from the Standard’s Kensington offices, and rarely able to offer a full day’s commitment, many on his team concluded that he never really understood, or even valued, the role of editor.
Good editors leave their mark. Harry Evans at the Sunday Times exposed the plight of children suffering birth defects from thalidomide. Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post steered the ship during Watergate. Even lower-tier chiefs can make a difference. In the UK, Will Lewis at the Telegraph led the team that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal. Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian chose to ignore a government order to hand over computer equipment used by the American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, to leak top secret security data.
What will Osborne be remembered for? He exits the Standard on 1 July with the paper haemorrhaging readers, facing mounting debt and an uncertain future. These woes are not all his fault. But he also leaves the title with a tarnished reputation for paid-for news and a suspect internal culture, where commercial chiefs still lord over weak-willed and compliant editorial managers.
One senior journalist at the Standard told me that it wasn’t unusual for an advertising executive to come to his desk and suggest both a potential story and how it should be written. He said: “Your instinct is to tell them to fuck off. But this is Osborne’s Standard. So you remind them of how we got caught over the Uber and Google deal – and you hope that’s enough.”
Your instinct is to tell them to fuck off. But this is Osborne’s Standard
The Uber and Google deal was part of a £3 million project exposed by openDemocracy in 2018. Initially called London 2020, but later rebranded as Future London, the Standard gave six companies, including Uber, Google and controversial health tech film Babylon, promising them “money-can’t-buy” positive news and “favourable comment coverage.”
Starbucks walked away from London 2020, calling the idea of buying positive news “PR death” – “something you might do in Saudi Arabia”.
Ironically, it is now Saudi money and Saudi influence that swirls around Lebedev’s other news operation, the online Independent.
Osborne is a would-be journalist, rejected by the Times and the Economist shortly after leaving Oxford. But after decades in frontline politics, it seems he didn’t really care what readers expected, or what they were entitled to be told.
Although Osborne will officially retain the title of editor-in-chief, his role will be almost entirely cosmetic. Meanwhile, the new editor, Emily Sheffield, will need nothing less than a cultural revolution to undo his pernicious legacy.
Osborne’s departure was not a surprise. The Standard is losing almost a million pounds a month. Advertisers were told – pre-Covid 19 – that ad rates were based on 800,000 copies a day being distributed across London. But few had faith that this number held credibility. The large piles of untouched papers visible outside tube stations across London well after rush hour, and the hike in collection and pulping operations, all suggested – even before the pandemic struck – that the health of the give-away title was in steep decline.
Osborne may not have been able to solve the Standard’s financial problems. But had he focused on the Standard’s journalism, on holding those in power accountable, his legacy could have been different.
He was, unfortunately, far better equipped to understand commerce than journalism. Even when openDemocracy reported in October 2018 that an effusive interview with Uber’s chief executive failed to tell readers that it was part of a £3 million commercial deal, with critics calling it “a disgraceful blurring of the line between advertising and journalism,” Osborne simply claimed everything was “transparent”. This wasn’t remotely true.
Pointing out the irony of a newspaper offering Google favourable editorial, when Google was siphoning off advertising revenue that was once the life blood of the newspaper industry, Angela Phillips, professor of journalism at Goldsmiths, said: “There is something particularly depressing at the sight of news organisations going cap-in-hand to beg for a payment of £500,000 and promising to chuck in some favourable coverage as part of the bargain.”
Announcing his departure, Osborne said he’d had “three wonderful years as editor” and thanked the team who he said had made the Standard “a must read.” One can only assume he meant the team of deal-making executives in the commercial department.