THATCHER (reading aloud): One item on your list intrigues me: The New York Inquirer. A little newspaper we acquired in a foreclosure proceeding. Don’t sell it. I am coming back to take charge. I think it would be fun to run a newspaper. [Disbelieving] I think it would be fun to run a newspaper?
from Citizen Kane (RKO Pictures and Mercury Productions, 1941)
My first reaction to the news that former Chancellor George Osborne is to edit the London Evening Standard was the classic frostiness of the affronted closed-shop member at the intrusion of an outsider. I, and the hacks with whom I share working space, became enormously huffy about Mr Osborne’s lack of any real journalistic experience.
‘So anyone can edit a paper, can they?’ was the common refrain. The phrases ‘novelty hire’ and ‘the first work-experience editor’ were bandied about.
My second reaction was to suggest that the MP for Tatton will be doing very little actual editing. That will fall to a deputy, probably some chap in late middle age who wears a cardigan, eats fish-paste sandwiches for lunch, is likely to be Scottish and has been in the game since his teens.
Mr Osborne will get to write (or at least suggest themes for) a weekly ‘from the editor’s chair’ column, to have oversight of the leaders and to attend those award ceremonies and celebrity events upon which his proprietor Evgeny Lebedev seems quite keen.
My third reaction is that the paper and Mr Osborne are made for each other, in both the genuine and the mildly derogatory senses. More on that in a moment.
We have all become used to the notion that commercial management is a profession in its own right, and no-one turns a hair when a chief executive hailed for having turned round a troubled food manufacturer moves on to head an insurance company. It is easy to forget how recent is this development – traditionally, it was thought that car companies were best run by engineers, beer firms by brewers, banks by former bank clerks, and so on.
Since the turn of the Millennium, this notion has expanded into the professions, with career managers appearing in healthcare and legal practices.
Had Mr Osborne been such a career management type, his appointment to the Standard’s editorship would be alarming enough. But his arrival at Northcliffe House (the Standard’s HQ in Kensington) suggests that simply being a prominent public figure is qualification enough to edit a newspaper or, presumably, run a television station or any other media company.
Expect more of this sort of thing in a newspaper business demoralised by falling sales and the ceaseless challenge of trying to make money online.
But aside from his lack of relevant experience, Mr Osborne ought to be well-suited to the Standard, sharing its admirable and less admirable features. In the former category, he was always a great champion for London, for the City and for open markets.
Other finance ministers moaned that China was manipulating its currency; the Chancellor worked to turn the City into the offshore centre for trading the renminbi. Other finance ministers were deeply wary of Islamic finance. George Osborne issued a £200 million sukuk Islamic bond. Others fretted that cyber-currencies such as Bitcoin would be a boon for criminals and terrorists. George Osborne was more interested in getting London a piece of the action such that it might become a centre for cyber-currency trading.
He also put a Canadian in charge of the Bank of England because he thought he outshone domestic candidates.
This bouncy optimism and can-do outlook is the sort of thing that the Standard has long claimed to be the essential spirit of the capital. So in that regard the former Chancellor and the afternoon newspaper make an ideal match.
Other common features are less flattering to either party: a weakness for modish views, a certain lack of ‘bottom’, a superficiality and the suspicion of a shortage of truly deeply-held beliefs. The comedian Liam Mullone in 2015 spoke of ‘the Evening Standard, a London-wide newspaper writing for the benefit of 11 people in Islington.’
Unfair, no doubt, but a grain or two of truth.
I had thought out most of the above before reading Saturday morning’s papers. When I did so, I was surprised to see the Daily Telegraph sound the alarm that Mr Osborne intended to use the Standard to undermine Theresa May, her approach to Brexit and even, perhaps, to undermine Brexit itself.
This rather ignores the fact that the Chancellor has accepted the referendum result and, as they say, moved on. Should he wish to promote the notion of staying in the single market, that’s his right (wrong though I believe it to be).
Anyway, Mr Osborne, an intelligent man and good company in private, is unlikely to see editing a London free-sheet as the launch pad for a coup against the Prime Minister. Most likely, the idea of the job interested him and he thought he’d give it a go.
The Daily Mail took a lighter approach this morning, stating that Mr Osborne ‘adds his name to the long list of intellectual titans to run this 190-year-old title’. Mail editor Paul Dacre is a former skipper of the good ship Standard.
Mr Osborne’s appointment has outraged all those – mainly although not exclusively on the Labour benches – who believe being an MP ought to be a full-time job, who see legislators as, in effect, merely another branch of the State bureaucracy. But it is for the voters of Tatton and no-one else to judge whether his multiple job portfolio is acceptable.
So best of luck, George. It should be a lot of fun.
PS: Don’t treat press deadlines the way you did your deficit-reduction target date, otherwise the paper will never come out.