Sunday, 19 March 2017

In Defence of George Osborne

The Evening Standard is not a tough gig for an editor, so we shouldn't be too surprised at the appointment of the neophyte George Osborne to the job. It is a free-sheet that is mostly made up of property advertising. The specialist sections - sport, arts, "going out" etc. - have their own editors, while the "local" news is largely the preserve of journalists with local knowledge, requiring little editorial intervention. The "national" news element doesn't usually amount to more than half a dozen pages, while the editorial and comment is mainly anodyne puff-pieces and by-the-numbers wittering that falls short of what you'd expect in a national tabloid let alone a broadsheet. It hasn't had a notable (or handle-with-care) columnist since Brian Sewell, the waspish art critic, who died a couple of years ago. Maybe George will try his hand at covering the Turner Prize. The political significance of the Evening Standard is down to its timing, appearing in the afternoon, and its location, being the local paper of Westminster. It became a free-sheet in 2009, propped up by a Russian oligarch's cash, because fewer people were prepared to buy it once they could access free news and listings online. It is at the heart of the real metropolitan elite - rich conservatives - hence its commitment to luxury and star-fucking. George Osborne looks like a perfect fit.

The incongruity of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the job only arises because we still imagine the role of an editor as being somewhere between the fictions of Walter Burns and Lou Grant and the self-serving myths of Harold Evans and Kelvin Mackenzie. In reality, putting a newspaper together has been a lot simpler since Wapping and the introduction of digital technology in the 1980s. Ironically, it is IT that has allowed newspapers to survive, essentially by allowing them to radically reduce their cost base, even as the Internet continues to erode advertising revenues. While it is fun to imagine Osborne getting to grips with hot metal, modern editors are increasingly corporate executives rather than hands-on journalists, something that became obvious during the Leveson Inquiry as the former editor of the News of the World admitted she barely knew what was going on (the point is not that she was probably dishonest but that her excuse was plausible). Under the proprietorship of Evgeny Lebedev, the job of the Evening Standard's editor has shifted away from journalism to acting as an MC for "metropolitan society".

For some, the old ideal of the omnipotent editor has become a form of performance in which labour-saving technology is rejected and Stakhanovite effort is the norm. According to a new book on Daily Mail editors past and present, the current incumbent, Paul Dacre, has turned Northcliffe House into a twentieth century safe space: "Dacre emerges from this book as an isolated and, above all, angry figure with a hatred of the new. He never types at a computer – an assistant sends his emails and his staff’s journalism reaches him on paper rather than on screen – and while the Mail prides itself on having its finger on the pulse of present day “Middle England”, Dacre himself rarely sees anywhere that could be so defined. A chauffeured car takes him to and from the Mail’s offices in Kensington, where he spends between 14 and 18 hours a day on most weekdays, normally leaving only after the first edition has gone to press around 10pm". Objectively, this is the behaviour of a person with a tenuous grasp on reality, akin to late-stage Howard Hughes. In comparison, George Osborne appears the epitome of the well-adjusted and worldly.

The idea that MPs shouldn't have second jobs is not the same as the idea that they shouldn't have interests. What really matters is partiality, not availability. Osborne can be criticised for being a part-time advisor to BlackRock, on the grounds that this might influence his vote or encourage other MPs to be congenial towards the financial services industry in the hope of a similar "reward" in future, but there would be no grounds for criticism if he decided to become a part-time French polisher, assuming this didn't cause him to neglect his duties as an MP. Ultimately, the only people who can decide whether he is neglectful are his constituents. At a certain rarefied level, work is simply existence: chatting, wandering through well-appointed rooms, pontificating from behind a lectern. Having 4 jobs doesn't mean working 4 times longer or 4 times faster than most people, it simply means being able to command a higher price for an ever-smaller fraction of your attention. This is why others in the same milieu, such as Tony Blair, can dismiss criticism of Osborne's decision with an airy appeal to calibre: he's a "highly capable guy".

One argument for multi-tasking MPs has been the value of a hinterland - being exposed to the wider world and a variety of social experience - though this is mostly self-serving cant. Few MPs think they would have a better insight into the gig economy if they became Uber drivers, though I'm sure plenty would be happy to become a non-executive director of the UK arm of the business. While being a practising barrister or other professional is now rarer among MPs, company directorships have become more common in the neoliberal era while many more have side jobs as newspaper columnists or TV and online pundits, reflecting the profusion of media and consequently increased demand for content. Unless the columns are ghost-written, I'd suggest that knocking out 1,000 words is likely to be as much of an incursion into their working day as Osborne chairing a couple of meetings while skimming through emails on his phone. Clearly constituents are being short-changed by MPs who do take second jobs, but so are those who find their elected representative keener to appear on Have I Got News for You? than down the local pub.

Osborne's new day-job is significant for reasons beyond his personal cupidity. The newspaper industry has long been dominated by the "Tory press", but that bias has become more pronounced in recent decades as notionally progressive outlets have cleaved to neoliberal centrism. The ideological spectrum of national newspapers now runs from the "dead centre" to the far right of the Conservative Party (i.e. UKIP, as represented by the Express). This is historically unprecedented. When the Daily Mail occasionally said nice things about Fascism in the 1930s, that was a conventional position (like mild anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Bolshevism) echoed by other papers on the right such as the Times and the Telegraph. This was mirrored by a variety of newspapers on the left, ranging from the Labour-affiliated Daily Herald, which welcomed the Russian revolutions of 1917, to liberal papers, such as the News Chronicle and Manchester Guardian, that were hostile to Fascism. The range of attitudes in the British press was brought into sharp relief by the Spanish Civil War, with many taking partisan positions (see page 116). Today, a partisan stance by the liberal press means Nick Cohen haranguing Corbyn supporters.

This ideological range gradually narrowed after 1940, not because public opinion consolidated on the political spectrum but because left-oriented papers were squeezed by the combination of falling profits, under-investment and a puritanical style increasingly at odds with a consumer society (the trades union-funded Daily Herald eventually became Murdoch's Sun). The changes to the media landscape since the 1980s have resulted in publishers becoming more self-conscious as generators of content rather than as distributors. At the same time, the increased competition for eyeballs brought about by the Internet and multi-channel TV has encouraged traditional press outlets to rely more on shock and outrage to grab attention, which has applied to political commentary as much as general news or celebrity. This has led to right-wing views that go beyond what would be considered merely contentious and are knowingly offensive. In this regard the Daily Mail's indulgence of Katie Hopkins is arguably worse than its jejune "Fascist flirtation" in the 1930s.

Instrumental trolling is pernicious because it provides space for more articulate views that can smuggle in some very nasty ideas while avoiding inflammatory language. This isn't a novel development - for example, there are disturbing parallels between the Times publishing Melanie Philips' crackpot history and its lending credibility to The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in 1920 - but it does appear to have become more common as the political spectrum has shifted to the right since 2010. When liberal organs like the Financial Times and Newsnight give David Goodhart space to advocate the merits of "racial self-interest" and attack cosmopolitans ("anywheres"), you begin to wonder where they imagine the centre of politics is. Liberals bleat about "fake news" and insist that they need better "stories" or "champions" to counter the right, but what they don't do is suggest we need newspapers willing to take a robust line from the left. Insisting on balance between the right and the centre simply shifts the fulcrum to the right, which in turn normalises views that in previous decades you would not have expected to see outside the pages of neo-Nazi rags like Bulldog and Spearhead.

The liberal cry that "democracy requires a free press" is wrong. Democracy predated the invention of the printing press and it has happily survived periods of formal state censorship, from the temporary interruptions of wartime (there were contested by-elections in the UK during WW2, some won by independents standing against government policy) to the long-standing system of D-notices. What democracy requires is free speech, which is not the same thing. You and I enjoy free speech; Rupert Murdoch enjoys a free press. I don't expect George Osborne to value the interests of ordinary citizens over those of media barons, but I do expect his new job to highlight that the role of editor on any modern newspaper is essentially political not technical. The more Paul Dacre has become an active politician, condemning the judiciary and insisting that he commands greater legitimacy as a tribune of the people, the more he has sought to deny this reality by emphasising the unique demands and expertise of editorship. He must be spitting feathers that Osborne has revealed the truth.


  1. Ben Philliskirk20 March 2017 at 12:20

    I think a lot of criticism of Osborne is more on the lines of cronyism and the fact that someone can get paid £200,000 for part-time work in a field in which he has little experience just because he is an entrenched member of the political, social and economic establishment. The very fact that Osborne is capable of filling so many jobs suggests that they are 'easy' and that connections trump any kind of competency.

  2. George Osborne's problems are related to his relative youth (45 years 10 months). The sinecure on offer from Black Rock is just the standard reward for a retiring high office holder who has not rocked the boat. The trouble is that Osborne may have a second political act if he can withstand the pressure to resign his seat. Traditionally a conservative politicain would attempt to become financially indepentent before beoming an MP. (Heseltine, David Davis). Or marry money or a high earning spouse (Thatcher, May, Blair). With the rise of the special advisor route into politics you have to start young or you will never make it. If you have spent your youth on low political pay how can you cash in?

    A second discordant note is the Russian connection. Lebedev seems to have just bought a politican. A routine transaction in Moscow no doubt. This forces the comparison of our own ancient democracy and the Russian nexus of money and power. How much better is the UK system really?

    Thirdly greed. Does George Osborne really need all that money? Is noblesse oblige completely dead today? Was it always a myth? As Tony Blair shows if you have power you naturally expect the extreme wealth that should go with it. Are elite British Public schools playing a part here. The children of the Bitish ruling class are now going to school with the sons and daughters of Russian oligarchs, Chinese communist party officials and assorted third world despots. Instead of being inculcated with the ancient moral virtues of the British aristocracy perhaps our future rulers will think more like their international peers. Perhaps there was never that much difference between them.

  3. "... the ancient moral virtues of the British aristocracy ..."

    Well at least that made me laugh.