The appointment of George Osborne, a Conservative MP and former chancellor of the exchequer, as editor of the Evening Standard was, to put it mildly, a surprise to many. But the move only makes more explicit the newspaper’s close ties to the Conservative Party
I carried out research on the Standard when it was edited by Sarah Sands, who had vowed to be “scrupulous” in providing equal coverage in the run-up to the 2015 mayoral election. I found that the Standard gave Conservative Zac Goldsmith more favourable coverage than his opponent, Labour candidate Sadiq Khan. The same dog-whistle politics that were coming out of Goldsmith’s campaign could also been seen on the pages of the London daily.
The fact that the Evening Standard has a monopoly position in left-leaning London, where it is distributed, free, on London transport, should alone be reason to steer clear of such nakedly political decision-making as appointing a sitting Tory MP as editor. But its owner, Evgeny Lebedev has form. The Independent newspaper, admittedly in its death throes at the time, came out for the Conservatives at the 2015 election, a move that directly contradicted both its editorial line and the expectations of its young Liberal readership.
According to Adam Bienkov, deputy editor of politics.co.uk, that was a decision “dictated by Lebedev” who, he maintains, is very close to the Conservative foreign secretary, Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London).
Now Osborne, a beneficiary of the Conservative bias in the British news media in print and online, will be at the helm of a Lebedev newspaper that is the only provider of London-wide news in print.
With Osborne running his own newspaper will we see the Evening Standard focusing on the continuing row within the Conservatives about the handling of Brexit? How will the paper, under his stewardship, report efforts to correct the impact of damaging housing policies that have seen the disappearance of genuinely affordable housing in the capital? Those are policies which he not only backed but, in some cases, initiated.
Khan was quick to tweet his congratulations, despite his treatment by the paper in the past. It doesn’t do for the Mayor of London to step out of line. He knows he is totally at the mercy of the London news ecosystem – which the Evening Standard dominates – for any reporting of his work at County Hall.
The UK already has a Conservative-dominated news media so it could be said that Osborne’s appointment will make little difference. But it goes hand in hand with two other changes.
The first is the slightly more subtle politicisation of the BBC. The post that Osborne takes up, only became free because Sands, who is widely seen as supporting the Conservatives, has been recruited to run the BBC’s flagship radio show, the Today Programme. The BBC’s head of news, James Harding, is an ex-editor of the Conservative-supporting newspaper the Times (which is part of the Murdoch empire). He is also a close personal friend of George Osborne.
Music to Murdoch’s ears
While all this could be mere coincidence, there is a third issue of concern. Twentieth Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is in the process of trying to take over Sky TV. This is controversial because of the dominant position, online, in print and on social media, of Murdoch-owned (and Conservative supporting) news outlets: the Sun and the Times. The takeover is being referred to the Competition Commissioner.
Sky is one of the only three organisations currently producing TV news in the UK. Currently, it lags well behind ITN and the BBC in terms of audience but a merger could change all that. Cross-platform promotion across The Times and The Sun could bring in considerably more viewers.
Sky, like all broadcasters, is required to be balanced in its news coverage, thanks to regulations. However that was also the situation in the US, until a relentless campaign by right-wing Republicans to repeal the “Fairness Directive” in the late 1980s. Since then, American radio and TV has become more and more polarised. Fox TV (owned by Murdoch) cheerleads for the Republicans and dismisses all other mainstream American media as “liberal” and untrustworthy.
If Sky becomes a wholly owned part of Twentieth Century Fox and the BBC is dominated by Conservative supporters and ex-employees of Murdoch, where will any opposition to further changes to the laws governing plurality come from?
That might sound like conspiracy theory but, had those who watched the rise of the conservative media establishment in the US predicted that it would lead to the presidency of Donald Trump, they would have been dismissed as conspiracy theorists too.
Angela Phillips is a member of the Media Reform Coalition and the Labour Party.