George Osborne’s Evening Standard delays controversial Uber, Google deal

In the wake of ‘cash for column inches’ scandal and calls for Osborne to resign, newspaper denies that £3 million 'paid-for news' deal has been ditched

James Cusick
James Cusick
5 June 2018
osborne creepy.jpg

Image: Evening Standard editor and former Chancellor George Osborne. Credit: Matt Cardy/PA Images, all rights reserved 

George Osborne’s London Evening Standard has abandoned the scheduled launch of its controversial £3 million campaign, just days after openDemocracy revealed companies such as Uber and Google had been promised “money can’t buy” news coverage as part of the lucrative deal.

openDemocracy understands that the London 2020 project was planned to be given a fanfare launch in the Evening Standard today. It was to include high-profile, high-impact announcements and ambitious promises on housing, tech, and measures to combat pollution scattered throughout the paper.

Six signed-up partners, each paying £500,000, had been promised positive news and “favourable” coverage that would continue “for the next two years” as part of the 2020 deal.

A “transformation of the capital” into an “economic powerhouse, environmentally and socially sustainable and fit for future” was part of the “editorial” launch.

However when the first copies of the paper arrived at rail and underground stations this afternoon, there was no mention of the project.

Although Evening Standard’s owners ESI Media say they have not ditched the project, there is now no firm launch date.

Since openDemocracy first revealed details of the controversial 2020 deal last week, there has been a storm of outrage over the project, which effectively sweeps away the ethical dividing line between independent editorial and advertising.

The ‘cash for column inches’ scandal has seen calls for George Osborne, the former UK chancellor who led the project, to resign as editor of the Standard. Others called for the Standard – which distributes 900,000 copies throughout Greater London – to be banned from valued distribution points outside London Underground and rail stations; and for the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) to take action against ESI Media, the Standard’s parent company owned by Russian oligarchs Alexander and Evgeny Ledbedev, for breaking one of the ASA’s key rules that news cannot appear as editorial content “when it is not.”

openDemocracy asked ESI Media to comment on why the planned London 2020 launch had been called off, if any commercial partners had pulled out of the project, and whether Osborne had been forced into a complete rethink given the public outrage and widespread negative coverage across UK print and broadcast media.

A spokesman for ESI Media said: “You have been misinformed. ESI Media and our partners are committed to launching the London 2020 project and are excited about the potential it holds to deliver tangible change in improving the lives of Londoners. There has been no fixed date for the project to start. We are looking forward to launching the project to our readers during the summer.”

Bigger problems afoot?

openDemocracy has now learned of other developments which could spell trouble for ESI.

Back in 2016, ESI sold the i newspaper to the Johnston Press group. As part of that deal with Johnston, the i signed up to a two-year deal that gives it access to content generated by the Evening Standard and the online Independent.

openDemocracy has now learned that the “i-Standard-Independent” content deal remains in place, but that negotiations over its renewal have now stalled.

A spokesman for Johnston Press said they would not be commenting on whether there was a plan to renew the content deal or not.

A source with knowledge of the Johnston-ESI negotiations said there were a number of straightforward “journalistic reasons” why renewal of the 2016 deal was unlikely. However the source said that although the i had previously taken content from the Standard, that was forecast to stop “given the current atmosphere.”

Outrage over the 2020 project, and the negative press generated by openDemocracy’s investigation, has seen Osborne’s editorship rendered toxic by many industry analysts who see the ‘church-state’ divide between news and advertising as critical to the future of newspapers.

The extent of the financial difficulties being faced inside ESI is not fully known. There are new reports that the local television station, London Live, which barely registers on audience-research evaluations and continues to lose ESI millions each year, has been put up for sale.

“PR death”

Both the tech-giant Google and the international taxi-app firm, Uber, though formally asked to comment on their decision to take part in the London 2020 project, have so far remained silent.

A number of companies chose not to be involved. One of them was the coffeehouse giant, Starbucks. The company told openDemocracy it had met with ESI Media, but had decided not to take the matter further. A company executive told openDemocracy privately that it did not “buy” its reputation and called the idea of paid-for news “PR death.”

ESI Media have denied that they crossed the editorial-advertising divide and insisted that “editorial independence is and remains guaranteed in the contracts we sign.”

However the co-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, scrutinised the Standard’s 2017 coverage connected to a commercial deal with the Swiss-agri-chem giant, Syngenta. She said the ESI claims that it had never crossed the ad-ed ethical divide did “not stack up”.

She urged Osborne and the Standard to “come clean” about its “hidden commercial agendas.”

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