Can the former UK Chancellor, who masterminded the Tory victory in 2015, really deliver ‘straight facts and opinion’ as editor of London’s flagship paper during this election campaign?
This week’s news that the former Chancellor George Osborne had “fallen on his sword, a bit” and decided not to seek re-election as an MP in June’s general election was greeted with applause, however limited, from within senior ranks of the UK Conservative Party.
Many agreed Osborne was juggling too many post-Treasury roles – in investment, finance, academia, and imminently in journalism as the editor-elect of London’s Standard newspaper – to continue representing his Tatton constituency with any effectiveness.
Writing in the paper he will shortly be in charge of, Osborne admitted that despite walking away from the House of Commons, he wanted to stay “active in the debate about our country’s future”, that he wanted a Britain that is “free, open and diverse”, and promised to give his readership “straight facts and informed opinion.”
What this sudden outbreak of self-declared independence omitted to mention was that Osborne’s damascene conversion to the “facts” of politically neutral journalism, will all kick-off (presumably with a flashy fanfare of new-era celebrations at the Standard) at the very beginning of a critical election campaign.
The political perspective is difficult to grapple with here. If Osborne wants ‘straight facts’ then he should consider these. It is less than a year since he was in Chancellor in a Tory government. He ran the last Conservative general election campaign. He admits his political ambition remains strong. And he says the choice about the kind of country Britain wants to be, “starts with the coverage of this general election.”
So while there is applause for Osborne finally accepting he may be juggling too much to continue adding ‘MP’ to his new and expanding portfolio of lucrative roles, there is virtual silence over him slipping into the editor’s chair at the Derry Street offices of the Standard just as the paper will begin explaining and decoding the election for London.
There “used to be something called ‘conflict of interest’, but today we all bathe in the same river.”
The American political writer Gore Vidal once remarked that there “used to be something called ‘conflict of interest’, but today we all bathe in the same river.”
America seems to no longer care much. Donald Trump in the White House renders such concern constitutionally and legally meaningless. But in Britain, in London, we should care that the capital’s branded newspaper, which reaches nearly two million people each day and has no like-for-like competitor, will effectively become a Tory-led free-sheet for the duration of an election campaign that will help determine the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan – ironically writing in the Standard, which opposed Khan’s multi-ethnic campaign in favour of the closed-Conservatism of Zac Goldsmith – said the June 8 poll was Londoner’s “last chance to stop the extreme forms of Brexit that the Tories have pushed at every opportunity.”
Osborne loyalists can point to the former chancellor’s pro-EU credentials, which put him at odds with the current Conservative government. The Russian oligarch owner of the Evening Standard, Alexander Lebedev, and his son Evgeny, say they are proud to have hired a politician of “substance” whose views they claim are “socially liberal and economically pragmatic”. Others can identify plain and simple continuity, asking “The Standard backed David Cameron’s Conservatives at the last elections. Osborne just continues to carry the flame. Where’s the problem?”
The problem is that before Osborne gets the opportunity to deliver on his promise of “straight facts”, before the Standard has the opportunity to fully decipher the precise Brexit risks for the City, or what future in London there is for EU citizens who have made their life in the UK, or what a vote for another party will mean in practice, the priority focus of the man in the editor’s chair will surely be delivering another Conservative government.
Political ambitions on hold – ‘for now’
Osborne has no experience of journalism. The only thing he can bring to the table between now and June 8 is the ammunition and weaponised tactics of a seasoned, hard-edged politician. If Osborne is in charge, how will these tactics and this ultimate goal not drive the front, comment and political pages of the Standard over the next six weeks?
Osborne’s future in politics – which he says is on hold, “for now” – will depend on the clarity of his party loyalty during the coming weeks. In the Conservative Research Department since 1994, in John Major’s campaign team for the 1997 election, elected to parliament in 2001, and chancellor from May 2010 till July last year, it seems extremely implausible that Osborne will now suddenly abandon his party for, as some insist, a few years of cold revenge.
So a little-disguised, force-fed diet of anti-Corbyn-Tory flag-waving coverage is what Londoners can expect during the formal campaign weeks. Other newspapers on the right of UK politics will do the same thing. But none of their editors will have been as close to the recent Conservative project as Osborne.
And that is why this democratic deficiency, this accountability failure, needs one key gesture that should come from Osborne himself. He should immediately announce that he will postpone taking up the job of editor till the election campaign has finished and the result is announced on June 9.
If Osborne does not see the conflict of interest himself, then pressure needs to be put on the owners of the Standard – and that can only come from Londoners who see this newspaper as more than few minutes of passive, harmless entertainment during their daily commute.
Business as usual?
Even before Osborne announced he was not seeking re-election in Cheshire, there was a gathering of right-leaning commentators seemingly happy to point out, in a move-along-nothing-to-see fashion, that other cabinet-grade politicians had trodden the same path and moved quietly, with minimum fuss, into a senior role in journalism.
Had not Iain Macleod, Colonial Secretary in Harold Macmillan’s government, become editor of the Spectator in 1963, whilst remaining an MP? And didn’t Macleod also become a non-executive director of Lombard Bank around the same time, proving our conflict-of-interest reflex is now over-used? Likewise, Richard Crossman, a senior and influential thinker in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, went on to edit the News Statesman.
These comparisons are lightweight. Both the Spectator and the New Statesman are weekly journals with an established, politically-attuned readership that expects arguments to end in only one way – with allegiance to the right or the left, but rarely in between.
Neither Macleod nor Crossman fashioned themselves into defenders of neutral fact-driven journalism as Osborne says he wants to do. Neither Macleod nor Crossman edited free-sheets handed out to commuters every evening in streets and tube stations across the capital, much as campaign leaflets reach a ‘captive’ audience. And neither Crossman nor Macleod were burdened with the equivalent of £650,000 a year for one day a week at US investment firm Blackrock, £120,000 for an academic position at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and the £1 million the former chancellor has made inside a year by making speeches to banks and other financial institutions.
The Lebedevs, who own both the Standard and the Independent and have courted Osborne’s friendship over the last few years as they have with other senior Tories, especially the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, will have to accept the clear conflict of interests their new editor brings with him. Staff journalists too, will need to find diplomatic ways of self-censoring some of their journalistic instincts if they are deemed potentially off-limits and embarrassing for the new boss.
These, however, are important issues that should arise after the general election campaign has concluded.
A test of ambition
Does Osborne have a right to resurrect the would-be career in journalism that stalled when he failed to win a place on a Times trainee scheme just after he left Oxford? He does. And if, as he says, he wants to be more than be an ex-chancellor, then the Evening Standard may indeed test such ambition.
Londoners have rights – and expectations from the newspaper that floods their streets to be more than just party-political pamphlet thrust into their hands for an entire election campaign.
But readers of the Standard however have rights too. They have the right to be more than the test-ground guinea pigs of a politician in transit to a new career, using a critical phase of Britain’s democratic process to cut his teeth. Londoners also have rights and expectations from the newspaper that floods their streets and tube stations to be more than just party-political pamphlet thrust into their hands for an entire election campaign.
The editor of the Standard will be the former chancellor. That is a commercial decision, however flawed. But during this election campaign George Osborne should do the honourable thing, accept the democratic conflict of interest here is simply too blatant. He should announce, or be persuaded, that his job as editor needs to be put on hold till the middle of June.