‘I Am Not an Expert in Producing a Newspaper’
As an ex-journalist becomes PM, James Hanning’s interview with ex-MP-turned-editor George Osborne explores the London Evening Standard‘s commercial dealings, independence and his ‘spiky’ approach to the newspaper.
George Osborne 2.0
Early one morning in 2017, the former chancellor George Osborne, having recently been appointed editor of the Evening Standard, was being driven to Heathrow for a business trip to the States. Out of the window he noticed a fire had broken out in a tower block. He tweeted what he had seen and colleagues at the Standard duly set to work on the story.
That day was to be a milestone in the progress of Osborne 2.0. The Grenfell Tower fire claimed 72 lives and began a chain of claim and counter-claim about safety standards and local housing cost-cutting. Whatever the cause of the fire, the presence of austerity’s controversial chief architect at the helm of the body that would normally be asking the sharpest questions felt unusual, to say the least.
When we met last year at his office in Kensington High Street – where, to declare my interest, I toiled happily and proudly for 15 years – I asked whether a former chancellor’s understandable desire to defend his record conflicted with the demands of a good story?
“I am the only editor whose financial interests anyone knows anything about. Everyone knows what I do and where I come from”George Osborne
“All newspapers, because they are privately owned… have their own sets of conflicts which they have to manage, and there is no such thing as a conflict-free newspaper,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect to read criticism of Rupert Murdoch in his newspapers or of Lord Rothermere in the Mail. You would go elsewhere for those. People will make their own judgement about whether the Standard gives a fair reflection of what is going on, whether it’s a fair and interesting read, is a place where you can get the facts and sharp opinion. Every paper deals with these conflicts, but in the end, the product is transparent. There is nothing hidden in the Evening Standard, it’s all published.”
In a marketplace of many, readers would have the option of reading another newspaper. The Standard, though, is a monopoly, which for a couple of decades – on and off – helped it to make money. Now, in an age of mobile phones and declining newspaper readership, it needs to work hard to make the sums add up. It currently loses £10 million a year, giving away around 900,000 copies around the capital.
“Newspapers are not charities,” he said. “I think the Standard made a brilliant decision long before I had anything to do with it to give itself out for free and get ahead of the internet. It would now be dying had it not done that. A lot of the print newspapers are facing real existential issues and I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t try a free model.”
Osborne was very proud that the paper speaks up for Londoners and of its ‘Future London’ collaboration with businesses.
“It is about real projects to improve the quality of the air in London, digital skills of Londoners, the health of Londoners and so on,” he said. “These are real, worthy projects in their own right and they are in commercial partnership with companies and that is clearly branded.”
Osborne was miffed at the Standard being singled out for criticism over its commercial dealings. “Every newspaper has commercial arrangements with companies – special features, special supplements, special conferences,” he said. “There’s been quite a lot of hypocrisy in the coverage of the Evening Standard’s commercial relationships, which are identical to those of other papers.”
Are they? Private Eye has referred to the Standard’s “descent into advertising”, and Osborne’s claim that the collaboration with business is always “clearly branded” has come under fire. Last May, openDemocracy alleged that, part of the deal with Future London – alongside advertising space and sponsored pages – was the offer to backers of “money can’t buy” coverage. In other words, as the headline explicitly alleged: “George Osborne’s London Evening Standard sells its editorial independence to Uber, Google and others – for £3 million.” This, surely, crossed a line?
Osborne said: “That was all mischief and misreporting – we absolutely do not sell favourable editorial coverage.”
openDemocracy has stood confidently behind its story and has withdrawn nothing. Sources on the editorial floor – emphatically not Osborne’s mouthpieces – said this type of project had a long gestation and predated his arrival.
Reader Aware of Reader Beware?
An interview carried by the Standard with the global boss of Uber will not have helped convince the sceptics.
Osborne said: “Every newspaper in Britain would have done an interview with the global boss of Uber coming to the UK. That was a good piece of journalism for us to get… If you read that interview, [the writer] puts to him questions about the treatment of Uber drivers, congestion in the capital, good searching questions, the answers to which are faithfully reported. And, in the copy that is published, there is a clear line in the copy in which [the interest is declared].”
In fact, in its very first iteration, there was no declaration of interest, even in the copy. The omission was spotted in the office “within about five minutes” Osborne said, and a slip (a change in mid-print run) meant a majority of copies in that first edition carried a line saying: “Uber is supporting the Evening Standard’s Clean Air project as part of the Future London initiative”.
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“The back bench saw that it didn’t have the [declaration of interest], and that’s good journalism,” Osborne said. “That is actually the back bench doing its job.”
Maybe in the national soap opera, Osborne the Bullingdon Tory is judged by different standards, but many will feel that line about Uber is insufficient. Should readers have also been told that, as openDemocracy reported, Uber paid more than half a million pounds for that “support” for Future London, as have four other companies? Similarly, should they have been reminded that BlackRock, which pays Osborne a reported £650,000 a year (probably three times his Standard salary), has an estimated £500 million share in Uber?
If such deals are not allowed, he speculated, “does that mean British Airways can’t advertise in The Times or the Telegraph or the Guardian…. Newspapers are not state-run, thank God, in this country. Newspapers have commercial relationships, they always have done since they were created hundreds of years ago and where we do the Future London projects with partners – the same partners, by the way, who have relationships with other newspapers – they are flagged up very clearly, and people can see what is sponsored content and so on. I think that is perfectly reasonable. What is the alternative, that no British newspapers exist? As long as readers are aware.
“And as for my own financial interests… I am the only editor whose financial interests anyone knows anything about. Everyone knows what I do and where I come from… I have got 200 journalists here whose salaries have got to be paid. I don’t think anyone has been able to point to coverage that has been woefully biased or notably lacking in presenting the other side of the argument.”
“All newspapers, because they are privately owned… have their own sets of conflicts which they have to manage, and there is no such thing as a conflict-free newspaper”George Osborne
We can surely all agree with Osborne that, at a difficult moment for trusted journalism globally, “as long as the reader is aware” has to be the rule. I was struck by the strength of his conviction, but these grey areas look bad.
The legitimate reach of a company like BlackRock is always likely to make the casual reader hoping for an impartial read uneasy. How could he be so insouciant about the risk to his paper’s credibility, I asked him.
“I just think there’s a myth of a free-to-produce, no-income journalism – and you do get that, in some places, in what passes for journalism online: no resource, no professional culture, a load of stuff that’s produced that’s just not true, often. I would say that is what has contributed to a lot of our problems, whereas what you get with the Evening Standard is well-resourced, professional journalism. Does the paper have an opinion on things? Yes, it does, that’s what makes it interesting to read, but it’s an opinion that broadly reflects where the capital we seek to speak to are as well.”
Turning Up the Volume
Osborne’s recent close acquaintance with journalism is long delayed.
“I had originally intended in life to be a journalist,” he said. Having edited the university magazine, he wrote to every newspaper editor. “I said please could you give me a job on your newspaper. None of them replied, apart from Charles Moore, who replied with a beautiful handwritten letter saying do turn up at the Sunday Telegraph”, which he did for three months before being offered a job at the Conservative Research Department. “My life took the other fork… [but] I love journalism and I love newspapers as well… I know it is old technology but there is still something incredible that the newspaper I have just signed off now will appear on the streets of London in a few hours’ time.”
He said his staff remind him of former colleagues in politics and the civil service. “They are not necessarily paid the highest salaries in the country, but they are motivated by the job they love, and there’s a calling to it,” he said.
As for the mark he wants to put on the Standard, Osborne said that the newspaper needs “to have attitude”.
“I’ve not been afraid to mix it up, to get into the politics, but people can see what I’m doing because it’s all in black and white,” he said.
Osborne has tried to “turn up the volume a bit and make it more spiky… a bigger part of the conversation the country is having. I’m pretty pleased with how it’s gone, with how the paper looks, the redesign we’ve done, and the emphasis we’re giving.”
I asked if he felt his staff challenged him enough. His answer – “a big lively discussion behind closed doors” – sounds good, and civil servants have confirmed his collegial style. “But I would say this,” he continued, “in the end, successful media products have to have a character. You need the editor to make judgement calls.”
“I am not an expert in producing a newspaper,” he said, but he talked with an enviable assurance about his job.
“That was all mischief and misreporting – we absolutely do not sell favourable editorial coverage”George Osborne
He directed me towards a column that day attacking austerity by a former Labour special adviser. He pointed to front pages, explaining how he had put a distinct stamp on the news. One, which hangs outside his office, bears the words Queen of Denial, from Friday 12 June last year – the day it became apparent that Theresa May’s decision to call an early election had backfired.
The gleeful front pages covering the former Prime Minister’s Brexit woes revealed how personally he took her decision to omit him from her Cabinet, when he was known to be willing to serve.
But, he said: “That’s all behind me now. I’m not an MP any more.” Is it?
James Hanning is former Deputy Editor of The Independent on Sunday. A longer version of this article was first published in the British Journalism Review.