How Osborne could help set a new standard

03 May 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How Osborne could help set a new standard

George Osborne’s interesting career change may turn out to be a master stroke for him personally - and provide a stimulus to national newspapers that want to deliver genuinely balanced Brexit coverage, writes Raymond Snoddy

In a period of political cataclysms the decision by former Chancellor George Osborne to become editor of London’s Evening Standard may not have moved the dial.

It was, however, a jaw-dropping moment; a genuine surprise that no-one predicted.

At the time it seemed like a great publicity coup for the Evening Standard despite Osborne’s total lack of experience of journalism. After all, there would always be plenty of people to actually handle the nuts and bolts of editing.

As for the former Chancellor of the Exchequer actually applying for such a job out of the blue, it appeared a rather random act that would expose him to both ridicule and charges of conflicts of interest.

The move to an editor’s chair cost Osborne his seat in the House of Commons and severe criticism by the Commons advisory committee on business appointments. It said he should not lobby his former ministerial colleagues on behalf of his new employers for two years.

Yet after his first day as editor it is already clear that the appointment was a smart move for all concerned. Osborne turned up at 7am, put in “a proper shift” and gave every sign of trying to master the intricacies of his new position.

It is even clearer from the content of his first edition that Osborne sees the Evening Standard as a new power base and one that is far more likely to give him political influence during the May years than ploughing on as backbencher for Tatton.

As he said at the time, Osborne has just given up mainstream politics “for now”.

The signs of the fray to come were very evident from his first efforts. How much of it was his own handiwork is difficult to gauge.

But as editor he was involved in shaping a paper that highlighted an “acerbic” lampooning of Mrs May, a first edition headline that read: “Brussels twists knife on Brexit” and an editorial attacking the Prime Minister’s election campaign as “no more than slogans”.

It was a theme echoed by newly hired cartoonist Adams who featured Theresa May as Big Ben: Bong Strong and Stable! Bong Strong and Stable!

Such attacks - and the Evening Standard is not alone - is threatening to turn the Conservative campaign theme into a running gag.

For good measure the Standard called Brexit “an historic mistake” and gave prominence to a poll that found that nearly seven in ten people do not believe Mrs May’s claim that she will be able to keep her pledge to cut immigration below 100,000.

As the Daily Mail headlined its piece: “First day as editor...and Osborne hits out at May.”

It also reported a Conservative MP observing that Osborne seemed to have forgotten he is a Tory pretty quickly.

All good fun and games but there may be a more serious point not just about the election campaign but also the two years of Brexit negotiations.

Because the Standard is a London newspaper it carries disproportionate influence. Not only are around 1 million copies a day distributed but that includes most MPs and news editors of national newspapers and broadcasters alike.

The Standard was a Remain newspaper in a Remain city but is now also being edited by a former senior Cabinet minister who, unlike many of his former colleagues, actually believed in staying in the European Union.

There are already signs - unsurprisingly - that the Osborne Evening Standard will devote more time, energy and space to politics and Brexit will be the biggest political issue of all for the foreseeable future.

Over the next two years the Standard could do something to tip the pro-Brexit balance - or more precisely bias - in the national press.

You don’t really need detailed research to notice the scale of the pro-Brexit enthusiasm in most of the popular nationals on a daily basis.

But for the record a Loughborough University study found that when circulations are factored in - rather than number of titles - the pro Brexit nationals accounted for 82 per cent of the total.

It is a pattern that will obviously persist in the election campaign and through what looks like increasingly bitter negotiations with Brussels.

The Sun will do what it has always done with lashings of abuse - “there are vipers more trustworthy than serial liar Jean-Claude Juncker,” is the latest effort.

Trevor Kavanagh also has added: “my load of wotsit for you, Mr Blair” in response to suggestions that the former Labour Prime Minister may be considering trying to create a new party of the centre.

For the Daily Mail its “Sneer, jeers and why we’re so right to leave” over the argument that the leaks from the Downing Street dinner merely reflects the desperation of the Eurocrats.

Quentin Letts chimed in with “Who’d want to be ruled by the risible Juncker and his poison-spreading Brussels sidekick?

So far so very predictable and the abuse and propaganda will undoubtedly continue, but are there modest signs that the complexity, and cost of departure, are starting to filter through the haze created by the papers who so want to leave?

A couple of weeks ago there didn’t seem to be any space for “negative” stories on Brexit. Now at least the dastardly doings of the disingenuous Eurocrats are at least being reported.

It wasn’t exactly on the front page, but the Mail did report - in a factual way - the EU negotiating position that the cost to the UK divorce bill could reach £92 billion while independent calculations by the Financial Times put the cost a 100 billion Euros.

George Osborne’s interesting career change may turn out to be a master stroke for him personally and provide a stimulus to national newspapers trying to provide genuinely balanced coverage of the seriousness of the Brexit issues.

And there are other former large political beasts roaming the jungle apart from Osborne and Blair.

Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argued that the Brexiteers are avoiding the prospect of a second referendum once the terms are known because they are afraid they would lose.

You can read the details in the online Independent.


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