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Stop press: UK grappling with a politician becoming an editor

The appointment of the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, as editor of the Evening Standard, has raised questions about conflict of interest.

world Updated: Mar 21, 2017 18:53 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
British media

File phot of Britain's former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who was recently named editor of the Evening Standard, London’s powerful free tabloid. (Reuters)

Journalists and editors becoming politicians is no longer news, but a top politician taking over as the editor of an influential newspaper after losing office has the same news value as the proverbial man biting a dog - and given the history of journalism and politics, Britain is agonising over this conundrum.

The man in the headlines is George Osborne, who, as chancellor of the exchequer less than a year ago, was the powerful number 2 in the David Cameron government. He, like his boss, opposed Brexit but became part of the political collateral damage inflicted by the vote to leave the European Union.

Sacked by Theresa May when she took over as prime minister, Osborne, 45, continues to be a Conservative member of parliament and earn large sums on the US speaking circuit and working for a major asset manager. But his latest role has caused much hand-wringing.

Osborne was last week named editor of the Evening Standard, London’s powerful free tabloid handed out mainly across the capital’s busy transport network. He was appointed to the post held until recently by Amol Rajan, who moved to the BBC as its media editor.

His editorial appointment has media experts and politicians worked up. Journalism is supposed to hold power to account - so what happens when a serving MP, very much at the forefront of parliamentary politics, is tasked with that key watchdog role on behalf of the people?

Unlike several journalists who have gone into British politics, Osborne failed to get a place on The Times’ trainee scheme, was rejected for a job in The Economist, and did some freelance column writing for The Daily Telegraph before joining the Conservative central office in the early 1990s.

By all accounts, Oxford-educated Osborne is enjoying the reaction to his appointment, as MPs and experts expound over issues such as conflict of interest and the ability to juggle the full-time commitments of an MP and an editor, besides taking on other busy roles.

Regretting the appointment, a group of independent journalists said it signalled the “continued demise of trusted mainstream media sources at a time of great political strife in Britain”, and noted polls which suggest that public trust in the mainstream media in Britain has never been lower.

“For too long, mainstream media outlets have failed to hold political and corporate power to account. Revolving doors between business, media and politics have severely affected impartial reporting, while political analysis has proven to be a futile exercise when journalists become politicians and politicians become journalists,” the group said in a statement issued by the Media Reform Coalition.

“George Osborne, who has no formal journalism experience, will evidently not be bringing an editorial revolution to the Evening Standard. Rather, the appointment of the Tory MP adds to the breakdown of democracy, where personal interests dominate the information disseminated to the masses.

“To put it very simply, how can a member of parliament hold parliament to account? When the issues of the day relate to policies supported, or indeed created, by Osborne, what can we expect from his editorial stewardship?”

Osborne clearly found roles to remain in public focus after losing his job as chancellor, while his former boss, Cameron, is not far behind. Cameron is reported to be working on a book, works the lecture circuit, and has a role at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics.

Last week, he took over the unpaid role of chair of the newly formed LSE-Oxford Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development. Its role is to guide police on economic growth in fragile and conflict situations. It is expected to make policy recommendations to governments, international donors and NGOs.