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George Osborne’s Evening Standard under fire (again) over lucrative Uber deal

Exclusive: Politicians call on UK advertising watchdog to investigate paid-for content dressed up as news at London’s biggest paper, after glowing articles about the controversial taxi app firm appear – but with no mention of sponsorship in hundreds of thousands of copies of the newspaper

George Osborne. Image, altogetherfool, Flickr, some rights reserved.

There are widespread calls for the UK’s advertising regulator to mount a fast-track investigation into George Osborne’s Evening Standard following the publication this week of an effusive interview with Uber’s chief executive. The article, presented as news, failed to inform readers that Uber is one of the key partners in a £3 million commercial deal – called Future London – with the London paper for “money-can’t-buy” positive news and comment, as revealed by openDemocracy earlier this summer.

The Standard told openDemocracy that it was "made clear in the article that Uber supported the Future London Initiative." But hundreds of thousands of copies of the paper distributed throughout London on Tuesday made no mention of Future London, the paper’s rebranded commercial tie-in with Uber, Google and other companies.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon have both called on the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to investigate the Standard. Guardian columnist George Monbiot called the Uber coverage “a disgraceful blurring of the line between journalism and advertising”.

The current online version of the Standard’s interview with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, however, does include a minor reference to Uber’s involvement in Future London in the text of the piece. The normal industry convention is use a company logo and clearly flag up any commercial partnership – this has not been done in either the print or online version.

The Standard initially claimed there was full “transparency” over Uber’s role in Future London, then a day later claimed “edition pressures” had led to the absence of any mention of the financial tie-up in over 400,000 copies. An executive spokesman said the sentence was added at the first “opportunity” and was present on more than half a million copies of the free paper and had not been added earlier.

One industry insider, with connections to advertising regulation, called the explanation, “A pathetic arse-covering exercise that will not fool anyone with knowledge of how a feature of this scale is produced in a newspaper, especially in a project where millions of pounds in needed revenue is at stake. This has all the hallmarks of a bullshit afterthought; throwing in a sentence that treats readers like idiots.”

The advertising regulator’s rules stipulate that native advertising – essentially commercial content dressed up to look like independent reporting – must be identifiable to readers.

The political commentator, Peter Oborne, who has been highly critical of commercial pressure overruling independent journalism, told openDemocracy: “If there is any point in being a journalist, it is to hold companies like Uber to account and ask them telling questions. So I hope the Evening Standard will explain fully what has happened here.”

Spot the difference

This week’s interview with Uber’s Khosrowshahi was presented over a two-page spread as “news in focus” with no mention in the paper of Uber’s commercial relationship with the Standard. The interview followed a one-sided news story on an earlier page which puffed Uber’s new “clean air levy” and downplayed a 12 per cent hike in Uber fares as a “fee” which would help “tackle air pollution in the capital and raise £200 million to help Uber drivers switch to electric power. The hike is almost five times the rate of inflation.

In May, an openDemocracy investigation revealed that Uber was then one of six companies including tech giant Google, who were paying a minimum of £500,000 each to be partners in a commercial project directed by Osborne and run by ESI Media, the advertising division of the Standard. Each partner was promised positive news and comment coverage in the newspaper. The number of companies involved is now five.

The project, initially called London 2020, had its launch postponed after openDemocracy’s reporting on the “money can’t buy” offer triggered a storm of outrage. The initiative was later rebranded as ‘Future London’.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, called it “cash for column inches” adding that Osborne’s role as a credible editor was in question. The former Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, said if Osborne was allowed to remain as editor “it is the end of mainstream journalism.”

ESI Media have previously denied the editorial-advertising divide has been crossed or that “money-can’t-buy” news coverage has been promised. The company runs marketing for the Standard, the online Independent and the London Live local tv station, all owned by Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev, with recent substantial investment from Saudi Arabia.

Calls for investigation

When ESI launched Future London in July, readers were promised: “Where businesses have supported us, we’ll make that clear on the page.” Osborne said his paper would be “reporting the truth”.

However the Khosrowshahi interview, written by a high-profile staff journalist and accompanied by a specially commissioned portrait, was branded as “news in focus” without any openly clear reference to Uber’s commercial deal with the Standard.

Khosrowshahi, 49, was described as “gentle, unassuming, with a clerical calm and a clean-cut CV”.

Uber has previously had a testy relationship with the London mayor’s office, but the article claimed Khosrowshahi’s plans now chimed with mayor Sadiq Khan’s policy “to reduce pollution” in London by 2020.

The Uber boss said he wanted “nothing less than revolutionising the transport industry” , adding that in “an ideal world” Uber would “put all London transport – Tube, buses, Overground – on Uber’s platform”. The Standard piece also quoted the CEO saying, “I would love to have black cabs on Uber as well.”

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is now asking the ASA to investigate the Standard’s interview with Khosrowshahi and the commercial contract behind Future London.

"This article is clearly Uber-sponsored greenwash. It's vital the Advertising Standards Authority investigates these unlabelled adverts and sends a signal that the media must make clear the difference between paid-for content and independent journalism,” Lucas said.

"Newspapers have a crucial role to play in holding corporations and those in power to account. In an age of fake news, journalistic integrity is more important than ever, and deals like this only undermine the public's already wavering trust."

Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the London Assembly’s transport committee, said the ASA should investigate the Uber articles and the wider breakdown of the editorial-advertising divide being overseen by Osborne at the paper.

“Good journalism should mean that people know the source of funding that media outlets are receiving and the Evening Standard is clearly failing to do that,” Pidgeon told openDemocracy.

“The two-page puff piece on Uber that appeared this week is a clear example where the word ‘advertorial’ or some something similar, should appear.”

Jonathan Hardy, professor of journalism at the University of East London said “ This illustrates the significant gap in UK regulations. In television, the rule against undue prominence for brands in programmes allows ordinary people to use regulation to identify and challenge embedded advertising. We need the same across publishing.”

Other politicians and leading advertising executives told openDemocracy that they regard the Uber interview as “brazen”, “arrogant” and “a shameless dismissal of journalistic ethics”. Many, however, said the power of the Evening Standard (as London’s only freesheet distributed in the afternoon) and Osborne’s track record of attacking critics meant they were reluctant to go on-the-record with their concerns.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot called it “a disgraceful blurring of the line between journalism and advertising” adding: “The Evening Standard can no longer be trusted as a source of news.

“If advertising standards means anything then the Advertising Standards Authority should carry out an urgent and full investigation and determine if this article – as a picture of Uber’s business – has been labelled correctly.”

Do you really think this is a good idea?

One senior Standard staff journalist told openDemocracy: “I would have expected this interview to at least have stated somewhere ‘In Association With Uber’. Since openDemocracy published its story [on London 2020] many staff journalists pressured by the ad department have simply pointed to the fallout from that piece and told pushy ad execs ‘Do you really think this is a good idea?’ That has made a lot of them back off. Now we have this.”

Under the editorship of the former chancellor George Osborne, the Standard is not making a profit. It lost £10 million last year and is on course for further huge losses. The daily distribution figure of 900,000 – key to its advertising rates – is also privately questioned by some agencies who believe the pulping of unwanted copies is a growing operation.

There have also been eyebrows raised at Osborne’s other business relationships with Uber. The former chancellor is paid £650,000 a year for a four-days-a-month advisory role with fund managers Blackrock. Blackrock has a stake in Uber which has been estimated to be worth £500m.

Uber, which is forecast to become publicly listed over the next two years, has had legal difficulties in London. It was branded “not a fit and proper company” to operate private cars, with Transport for London giving notification that its London licence was being withdrawn.

There were damaging issues over payments to drivers below the minimum wage, passenger safety and unreported sexual assaults. A stay of execution this year gave Uber a probation period of 15 months.

The Standard interview this week, however, stated that Uber “was so woven into the fabric of Londoner’s lives that they had no idea how they would cope without it.”

During his time in the Treasury, Osborne was widely seen as one of Uber’s strongest supporters. When the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, launched a review of private hire regulations that would have directly impacted on Uber’s business model, both Osborne and prime minister David Cameron are understood to have ordered a lobbying operation to encourage Johnson to back off. Johnson eventually abandoned his plans.

At the time, Steve McNamara, head of the London Taxi Drivers’ Association, responsible for the capital’s black cabs, accused Downing Street of behaving like “paid-up lobbyists for Uber”.

An initial statement from Evening Standard said the national media, including the BBC, had carried a news story about Uber announcing its introduction of a clean air fee. He added : “It made absolute journalistic sense [for the Evening Standard] to publish on the same day an exclusive interview with the CEO of Uber about the company’s plans to go fully electric.

“Neither the news story nor the interview were part of the Future London initiative. They were editorial stories which this newspaper was proud to publish and other publications followed. As such, the articles do not come under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority.” The statement said there had been “transparency” about Uber’s role in the Future London initiative.

However a day later, after openDemocracy questioned the facts of the first description, another statement was issued. It said there was a “simple explanation”. A spokesman said “edition pressures” had meant that the sentence on Uber’s link to Future London failed to be included, but this had been “changed at the next opportunity on the presses.”

The Standard claims to have a daily distribution rate of 900,000. It said 564,716 copies of Tuesday’s edition carried the sentence on the commercial tie-up with Uber. The paper’s statement said “There was no legal obligation” for this to happen and this was done by “editorial executives for transparency.”

Uber has so far not responded to requests for comment.

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