George Osborne lowers the Standard for journalism

George Osborne by altogetherfool, Flickr, licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Last week I ranted on Twitter about why I’m so upset about George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard. Let me try to explain why I — like others who have trained and worked as a news journalist — are fuming.

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We’ve all had bosses who we suspect aren’t up to the job. But how many of us have a boss who admits as much on his first day in the office?

That is how George Osborne chose to introduce himself to staff as the new editor of the Evening Standard on Friday. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer is reported to have asked journalists for help, saying: “I may have run a country, but I’ve never run a newspaper.”

This, it turns out, is simply one in a long list of flabbergasting and depressing details from Osborne’s new career move. And that’s if you can get past the fact Osborne seems to think he, rather than the prime minister, David Cameron, was running the country until last summer.

In case you haven’t heard already, Osborne’s journalism CV stretches to a couple of early rejections and a bit of freelance work.

If that wasn’t insulting enough, we found out that Osborne only applied for the job after friends asked for his advice about applying themselves. Rather than casting Osborne as a Fleet-Street Cyrano de Bergerac — belatedly revealing his suitability after grooming a rival — it betrays a casual interest in the role. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that he’s taking the job solely to get at Theresa May, who occupies the post he really wants.

Substance abuse

So why does Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the Standard, refer to Osborne as an appointment of ‘substance’? Presumably, because he already has at least three other jobs, each presenting their own potential conflicts of interest with his new role.

Osborne has no intention of stepping down as an MP for a constituency more than 150 miles from London. Nor is he expected to step back from his part-time job as an adviser to BlackRock. The chances of him fulfilling his post as a full-time editor look non-existent. Instead, he is more likely to be a permanent ‘guest editor’ — a celebrity appointment. This, not Osborne’s qualities as a leader, are the ‘substance’ Lebedev will get.

The Standard will lend Osborne a megaphone with which to thunder at the wrong turns of May’s premiership. And the opinions he offers will be devoured by the press, because they’ll come from a man frozen out of May’s government. In this context, everything Osborne says will be treated as news itself, so don’t be surprised if the Standard wins a prominence beyond its traditional London audience.

Views over news

Thanks to the forces released by the internet, opinion now often trumps the reporting of fact. The web, and social media, have helped to make fact-based news freely and instantly available. Consequently, an increasing number of media firms are concentrating on opinion-based content ahead of news. Celebrity pundits can be tied into exclusive contracts; facts cannot.

This economic reality encourages ever more polarised opinions. And divisive opinion sells. After concentrating on highly opinionated hosts — including politicians — radio station LBC has seen its listener numbers grow reassuringly, adding more than 200,000 between December 2015 and December 2016. That’s in sharp contrast to many newspapers, whose print circulations continue to dissolve.

The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, and the rise of the far right in Europe have accompanied an epidemic in ‘fake news’. In such an environment, journalists remind us that fact-based reporting is needed now more than ever before. More accurately it is losing its value to the industry — something that Osborne’s appointment exposes.

Stubborn things

And this erosion of reporting is evident beyond the business’s higher slopes. Increasingly, journalism resembles a profession of privilege that locks out a wider cast of talent. Junior salaries are frequently too low to offer a good living for anyone without support. Meanwhile, local newspapers — a proving ground for reporters— are hollowed-out, with dwindling staff, revenue and circulations.

If recent political events suggest a growing unease with an elite, what does it say that overwhelmingly journalists are middle-class and university educated? (Not to mention, that an editorship can go to a member of ‘the elite’ when he has so little experience.)

That doesn’t mean there isn’t talent in journalism, of course. As unfashionable as it is to say so, thousands of journalists are hardworking, dedicated and well trained. That is, despite a disastrous few years since the financial crash of 2007-8, when many lost their jobs or moved away from the profession.

In fact, there could be at least 84,000 people who have more immediate, relevant experience than Osborne for his new role. Because that’s the estimated number of journalists working in the UK. If you add retirees and those who have moved away from the field, the total might even approach 100,000 candidates.

The test for Osborne’s success shouldn’t be whether he bolsters the Standard’s profile but builds the paper’s reporting. We should ask what he does to train reporters, develop and support investigations and run campaigns beyond his political interests. Then, and only then, will Osborne qualify as an editor ahead of many others who endure poor pay and long hours to call themselves journalists.