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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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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk