Former Chancellor George Osborne this week talked at an exclusive London Press Club event about his new job as editor of the London Evening Standard, his thoughts on Brexit and the changing worlds of politics and media. The no holds-barred Q&A with broadcaster and commentator Andrew Marr took place at the Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall before a capacity audience of 200.
By Freddy Mayhew, Press Gazette
Evening Standard editor George Osborne has said that if he had continued to work as a Member of Parliament while editing the daily paper it would have left him “a bit compromised”.
Osborne made the comments at a London Press Club event last night when he was interviewed by Andrew Marr.
When Osborne was first appointed as the paper’s editor in March he was still serving MP for Tatton and Cheshire and had planned to continue in public office.
It was only when Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise general election in June that Osborne opted to step back from parliamentary life.
In response to an audience question asking if he thought continuing to do both jobs would have been too much, he said: “I think it is possible to do both jobs, be both an MP and edit a newspaper.
“But I think I probably would have been a less good editor because I think what’s true is that if you have constantly got your eye on your position in the parliamentary party and so on you would find yourself unconsciously pulling your punches.”
He added: “I think it’s true that you can see that you would find yourself a bit compromised. But maybe there would have been other advantages.”
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer also spoke about his approach to editing the Standard, which distributes nearly 900,000 free daily copies (ABC figures) and the lessons he had learned so far.
Prior to starting his new role as editor on 2 May, Osborne’s only journalism experience had been a brief freelance gig as a gossip writer for the Daily Telegraph. He was rejected from the Times trainee scheme and a job with The Economist.
Osborne said that during his four months at the helm of the Standard, he had learned two things about journalism in particular: “the pressure to get the words down and make it accurate and get the story out” and the importance of making a story “entertaining”.
“That pressure on the journalists and the sub-editor doing the headline and the pressure on the news editor and deputy editor to make it entertaining, to make it look good and draw the reader in – I don’t think as a consumer of the product I had appreciated the work that goes into it… it’s something I’ve come to appreciate,” he said.
He added that if a story was “boring” and “worthy” then “you might feel good going home at night but unfortunately no-one else has read your story”.
“It isn’t enough just to inform you have to entertain,” he said.
“I’m also seeking to bring something distinctive to the job and of course I have my experience in government and that enables me to look at some of the things that politicians say and say: ‘Hold on, I know exactly what’s going on there and that isn’t the case’ and go for the pressure point.
“I can see where either the government or opposition is saying something because they have clearly got some internal problem they are trying to manage and so are fudging it.”
He said putting the paper together each day was a “genuine team effort”.
“The idea that an editor can do in any one morning a huge range of things is a mistake,” he said. “I like to think… that the job of an editor is like a conductor with an experienced orchestra. You are trying to make sure that the whole thing has a direction and an approach.”
Osborne said he did write some of the excoriating editorials which have taken particular aim at Theresa May and Brexit negotiations (Osborne was part of the Remain campaign), but added: “I do have people on the team who can write them so it’s a collective effort.”
Osborne also said he had yet to write any of the front page headlines as editor, but said the chief sub “gets the benefit of my views”.
He said: “I sit in the newsroom while we are putting the paper together in the morning… and if I don’t like the front page I say ‘come on, we can do better’.
“It’s a creative process and I don’t think the editor can absent themselves from the front page. I think an editor who was a control freak – if you were trying to write every headline then the paper would be gummed up and there are a lot of very important sub-editors who can do that for you.
“I take an interest in the front because I think it’s the shop window to the newspaper. I take an interest in the comment and the news, but there’s a very experienced team.”
Osborne said: “I haven’t done much hiring and firing because the team there is really strong. I think the real decisions are those decisions: the key people you get to run most of the newspaper.
He added: “The last 45-minute build-up to going off stone is a daily thrill”.
On his editorial voice, Osborne said he made a “distinction” between what he said as a Conservative politician on TV and what he says as editor of the Evening Standard.
“The paper should speak to its readers and to the interests of London,” he said. “I work hard at that. It isn’t necessarily that the opinions of the paper are identical to my opinion.
“I think you owe it to your readers to call it as you see it at a newspaper.”
The Standard backed the Conservatives at the last general election, but has been critical of the current Prime Minister.
“I think I’m reflecting the concerns that the readers have about the government,” he said.
“We are, by the way, pretty harsh on Jeremy Corbyn and I can tell you that we get more readers complaints about us being anti Labour than being anti Theresa May or Conservative.”
Osborne said that in order to compete with online news and social media content the paper “has to have some edge”.
“It doesn’t mean it has to have an aggressive bias or be unpleasant, but I think I have to tell a bit more than just the news and therefore we have to give the paper a character,” he said. “I have to every day persuade people to hesitate for a moment, pick the paper up and not be on Facebook.”
He said of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, with whom he shares a building (both papers are produced at the Mail’s offices in Kensington): “I have a lot of admiration for the way he has edited that paper. I don’t always agree with his editorial line bit he’s given it a real character.”
Osborne said the Standard’s rate of pick-up was noticeably boosted by “big news days” and that the team saw “an immediate reward for good work and an immediate raspberry for bad work.”
He also claimed that his Conservative connections did not mean the paper “won’t take a view in 2020 on who is the best candidate” for London Mayor at the next round of elections.
He said the Standard might support Sadiq Khan for re-election “if he has done a good job” and that he had in fact called the London mayor after his appointment to say he would be editing with an even hand.
Asked whether he might consider a return to public office, Osborne said it was not something he was thinking about.
He said: “I’m a Conservative, I voted Conservative, I’m very proud to have been a Conservative MP. That’s part of my DNA. I certainly have not, if you like, disappeared from the public sphere.
“I chose to go and do a job that is part of the public argument, appear in front of public audiences, because I care about my country and the city and a newspaper is daily engaged in that argument, but that is not the same thing as yearning to return to public office, because I only just left.
“One of the advantages of being Chancellor of the Exchequer is that you can get quite a lot of the ambition out of your system because you have done one of the top jobs [in the country].
“I don’t have a burning, unsatisfied, particular ambition. I don’t rule it out, but it’s not something I’m thinking about. Sometimes going back is a big mistake in life.
“The thing about the paper is it’s a quality newspaper treated as such by advertisers,” he said. “You have a huge readership compared with most quality newspapers.
“That gives you a great platform and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great job.”