“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.