The announcement that George Osborne has been appointed as editor of the Evening Standard caused considerable mirth this weekend in what we used to call Fleet Street.
The Observer’s Nick Cohen delighted in his observation that Osborne “will discover he didn’t begin to understand the meaning of ‘austerity’ until his first day in a newspaper office”. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde revelled at the thought of “people who used to be journalists cocking up the country” whilst “people who used to cock up the country becoming journalists”. And Matthew Parris in the Times rushed to his friend Osborne’s defence, pointing a finger at those who are “jealous of the money” and “jealous of the success”.
So now the columnists have vented their spleens, what are we to make of this news? And what if any impact will it have on the ES as a brand and its advertisers?
The most obvious observation is the potential conflict of interest between Osborne as constituency MP, newspaper editor and a consultant to Black Rock (at a retainer of £650,000 per annum). MPs are up in arms at the blatant disregard this shows for the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, whom Osborne failed to consult. Certainly democracy is the net loser in this new portfolio of responsibilities. And although some commentators have pointed to precedents – Michael Foot as Editor of the ES, Boris Johnson as Editor of the Spectator, or even Michael Gove who has returned from the Cabinet to the Times, arguably all of these men were journalists before they were politicians.
Which perhaps explains why many critics have pointed to Osborne’s lack of journalistic credentials. He may have cut his teeth in student journalism at Oxford but having failed to get a job on one of the nationals he pursued his ambitions elsewhere. Clearly he didn’t do too badly. But occupying number 11 is no qualification for the editor’s chair, say his detractors. A former ES insider I spoke to was surprisingly supportive: “A good editor is not always the best scoop journalist but someone who can identify the best issues to go for and Osborne certainly understands many of those at the highest level”.
But perhaps the journalistic credentials of Osborne are irrelevant. He was appointed by Lebedev “as ambassador to the ruling classes” said one ex-ES journalist I spoke to. Which supports Marina Hyde’s comment in her Guardian piece that the proprietor is a “Starfucker of thermonuclear pretensions”. This reminds me of a phone call I got from the office of Mohamed Al-Fayed in the late 90s, another establishment wannabe who bought Punch Magazine in order to court respectability and wanted an agency to help him revive the title.
According to this argument Osborne will be a trophy editor, much like an extended “guest editor” who defines the interesting issues of the day but leaves the foot soldiers to pull it together. Perhaps he will plunder his contacts book to pull off an exclusive now and again – an Angela Merkel piece on Brexit or Ben Bernanke on the global economy.
But the million-dollar question is whether he will use it as a political instrument. The paper has been broadly Tory for as long as I can remember, and political commentators I have spoken to this weekend believe it won’t shift in terms of political sympathies. “After all Osborne is not an in your face type” said one, who recalled the phrase “submarine Chancellor” to describe a politician who was often hidden from view before breaking the surface now and again. So one might expect a blandly pro-Remain editorial at a choice moment, or a defence of global trade or high-skilled immigration, much as Osborne might offer from the back benches of the House of Commons.
His impact on sports or arts coverage is unlikely to be significant but we should watch out for who he might appoint as a columnist – the ES already has Matthew d’Ancona, so perhaps we might see one of Osborne’s Friends like the excellent FT columnist and Osborne biographer Janan Ganesh.
And what of advertisers? Their primary concern is readership – size, quality and penetration. Size is largely a given now that it’s a freesheet – but with print advertising prices declining, if he can lift the content (which is seen to have declined in the last decade) then it could make the product more appealing to brands. Whether that translates into advertising dollars is not a given according to one media agency chief I spoke to who said “editorial quality is largely intangible and not overtly attractive to advertisers”.
Would brands be interested in greater access to the editor? Would dinner with the celebrity editor be available to the bigger spenders? The answer to both questions is an unequivocal yes. So his influence and that of the ES could grow. And of course that extends beyond advertisers – if the ES grows in influence then it becomes more of a force to be reckoned with in UK media, a bulwark against Downing Street, against Brexit or business parochialism.
But a dose of realism is required. Those close to Osborne (and indeed those close to May) say his ambitions remain in the political realm. So making the ES hot property may not just be beyond his capability but secondary to his central purpose. There is so much at play in UK politics (the real impact of Brexit, the unity of the Right, the ability of the Left to mount an effective opposition) that this job may simply be a vehicle for the renewed political ambition of the editor and his eccentric proprietor.