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Why George Osborne should quit politics before editing The Evening Standard

The former Chancellor owes it to his new journalistic team.

There is no more precious freedom than the freedom of the press. It is the freedom that underpins all our freedoms, the one guarantee of freedom of speech, the ultimate protection against abuse of power, the clearest statement that nobody is above the law, nobody is beyond question, nobody can monopolise public attention. The campaigns, the scoops, even the ridicule holds power to account.”

Who could disagree with this powerful defence of Britain’s media and the vital role it plays in our democracy? The new editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, certainly wouldn’t, because he delivered those words in a speech in April last year as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So how could anyone, least of all Mr Osborne, fail to see the serious conflict of interest in the appointment of one of the biggest beasts of the Westminster jungle to edit London's longest-running daily newspaper whilst moonlighting as a Conservative MP?

I'm not sure how many of George Osborne's constituents in Cheshire read the London Evening Standard, but they will surely feel aggrieved that their local MP has announced that he will "speak for London and Londoners". It’s a strange move for a politician who has sought to rebrand himself as the champion of the Northern Powerhouse.

This appointment is bad news for the reputation of politicians, journalists and the relationship between the two. Trust in politics and politicians is rock bottom. People understandably question how Mr Osborne will find time to represent his Northern constituents well alongside his busy life as a London newspaper editor, an adviser to an American investment firm, an after dinner speaker on the books of the Washington Speaker's Bureau and a fellow of an American think tank. Those of us who put in 70 hours a week as constituency MPs have a right to feel angry that the reputation of MPs collectively, still battered from the experience of the expenses scandal, will be further damaged by the perception that we don’t give our full time and time and attention to representing the interests of our constituents.

Journalists have a right to be angry, too. For all the cynicism about the media, it is a noble profession. Most enter it with a strong conviction that sunlight is the best disinfectant. They champion the public interest by taking on vested interests. In an era of "fake news" the role of trained and professional journalists has never been more important. What sort of message does it send about the revolving door between Westminster and the media, and that a former Chancellor, who many believe still harbours big politicial ambitions, can walk out of the Treasury and into the news room without any real qualification to do so?

A man cannot have two masters. Is George Osborne a champion of the people of London, or a champion of the people of Cheshire? London’s Labour Mayor, MPs and council leaders can reasonably ask if they will continue to receive fair coverage from a Conservative MP in the top job. But equally, Conservatives will wonder whether the Standard’s editorial line will hold the government to account or simply attempt to destabilise a Prime Minister, who many believe the editor of the Evening Standard would still like to replace.

The Evening Standard is a great newspaper staffed by great people. They deserve better than to have their reporting subjected to daily questioning about bias because of the position of its editor.

So at the risk of upsetting the new editor of my city’s daily paper, George Osborne must decide if he really wants the job. If he does, he must put his political ambitions behind him and resign as a Member of Parliament.


 

 

 

 

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.