When newspapers were king, it was only natural the country’s capital had two competing titles. The Evening News was London’s long-standing rival to the Evening Standard for decades; many might still recall its memorable masthead, a red sun setting over a silhouetted skyline of prominent London landmarks (including the dome of St Paul’s); but the rivalry ended in 1980 when the Evening News was forced to merge with the paper it had comprehensively outsold during the 60s. Since then, short-lived rivals, such as Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated London Daily News, have failed to challenge the supremacy of the Standard.
A sign of changing times in the capital came in 2009 when ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny (who already owned The Independent) purchased the paper and within a matter of months relaunched it as a freebie. Previously, free newspapers had been cheap rags along the lines of Metro; that a paper with as long a history as the Standard could join the ranks of the giveaway titles seemed to suggest a demise was imminent, though the combined wealth of Lebedev and son could afford to keep the Standard as a non-profit making venture without any initial noticeable decline in journalistic content.
The Standard’s blatant cheerleading for the Conservative Party has certainly increased during the reign of Lebedev Junior (or ‘Two Beards’ as Private Eye is fond of calling him), culminating in far-from balanced coverage of last year’s London Mayoral Election; granted, it’s fairly customary for a paper to nail its political colours to the mast, but with the capital only boasting the one local paper, Londoners were presented with a rather lopsided view of the contest between Khan and Goldsmith. Lebedev also has a distinct appetite for advertising his famous friends, and his capacity for self-promotion has extended to endless plugs in the Standard for his vanity project, the London Live TV channel.
However, Lebedev’s latest move where the Evening Standard is concerned has surprised even his staunchest critics – the appointment of a serving Tory MP as editor of the paper, a man who up until last summer was Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Gideon’s appointment has raised several issues. Whilst it’s not unusual for MPs to pen columns for Fleet Street titles or to have been editors of papers or magazines prior to ascending to the Cabinet, it is fairly unprecedented to have such a prominent politician at the helm of a paper, especially one whose demotion to the backbenches hasn’t exactly dented his income.
Osborne has earned £771,000 from public speaking since leaving the Cabinet – including £85,396 for just one speech last November; it lasted three hours, but I suppose anyone forced to sit and listen to it would probably have gladly trebled the fee to shorten the speech to three minutes. He has an annual salary of £650,000 as an adviser to Black Rock Investments – working one day a week (nice work if you can get it). He also receives £120,000 from being a ‘Kissinger Fellow’ at the McCain Institute, a think-tank based in Washington; that’s on top of his MP’s salary of £74,000 and whatever it is he’ll be paid for ‘editing’ the Evening Standard, a job Gideon seems to believe he can tackle first thing on a morning before breezing off to the Commons in the afternoon.
Losing one’s seat in Parliament, whether voluntarily or being voted out by the electorate, isn’t exactly the end of the world for most MPs. Labour’s Tristram Hunt recently stepped down from his Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency and walked straight into a lucrative job as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many MPs already have extremely well-paid directorships of numerous companies long before they exit Westminster for good. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to discover George Osborne has managed to supplement his Parliamentary income with various sideline projects for a long time.
When it comes to a conflict of interests with his new appointment, the imagined impartiality of a newspaper editor is perhaps more wishful thinking on the part of the public when one considers how biased in favour of one particular political party most papers are, though Gideon’s Remainer stance when it comes to Brexit doesn’t suggest he’ll give the woman who sacked him last year an easy ride.
I would presume many journalists feel Osborne has been parachuted in by Lebedev as a celebrity editor – another of his well-publicised famous friends – over the heads of more qualified candidates, and their grievances are understandable. Fellow MPs are worried that Gideon’s greed in accepting payment for so many different jobs intensifies the public’s perception that most Parliamentarians aren’t necessarily committed to their roles as public servants and are more concerned with making as much as possible from their outside interests. Osborne’s constituents in Tatton, Cheshire probably wonder how much time he can devote to them and their town when his heart (or whatever stone-based object circulates the cold blood around his body) is so clearly in the capital. And with Osborne’s contemptuous attitude towards the sick and the poor in society from his time as Chancellor still fresh in the memory, this latest promotion paints him even more as a self-centred archangel of avarice.
A free newspaper with a serving MP as its editor – one with zero experience of what he’s been hired to do – might seem like a storm in a teacup, and in some respects it is; rich people handing posts to other rich people for the benefit of nobody but rich people. Why should we even care? But I suppose it’s hard not to get wound-up when confronted by another nauseating example of how the other half live and how we’re all in it together, with the exception of Evgeny Lebedev and his famous friends.
© The Editor