I CAN’T say that I share in the high-octane political indignation at the appointment of the former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, as editor of the Evening Standard in London. Today, he is due to meet his constituents in Cheshire to explain how he intends to represent them while editing a newspaper based 200 miles away.
Some of them may also raise his new job as a consultant to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, for which he is trousering a cool £650,000 a year for just four days’ work per month. Critics add up the money he will earn from all this. But clearly, it is not about money for Mr Osborne, who has a sizeable shareholding in his family wallpaper empire.
Consider the objections. Career politicians complain that an MP should have only one job — representing his or her constituents. There’s a respectable argument for this. But there is a clear counter-argument that outside interests give politicians a better understanding of the world in which the rest of us live. Leftists protest at the idea that a newspaper will be controlled by a Conservative politician. Newspaper editors clearly resent the idea of a parliamentary interloper in their cosy closed shop.
Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituents seem divided on their MP’s extra new job. But few seriously think that the issue is one of time. Mr Osborne was seen as a good active constituency MP even while he was Chancellor. There is no reason to suppose that editing a newspaper will take up more time than running the country. Not all editors are manic control freaks, rewriting every headline. Mr Osborne will undoubtedly be of a more strategic breed.
And why should it be any more objectionable for a newspaper to be controlled by a Tory politician than by a Tory proprietor who subscribes to a right-wing ideological worldview, and appoints editors in his own likeness? Indeed, Mr Osborne’s political track record could make it easier for the public to evaluate the politics of his Standard than it is to assess the covert agenda of a proprietor. Objections to the biases of Britain’s national press must go far deeper than this.
In any case, Mr Osborne’s politics are undoubtedly more centrist than most of the populist Tory press — which is why the Standard’s Russian owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has proclaimed that his new editor “will provide more effective opposition to the Government than the current Labour party”. Certainly, the Evening Standard, under him, can be expected to offer a more informed critique of the Brexit negotiating position adopted by Theresa May’s government over the next two years.
There is only one area where a real conflict of interest should cause anxiety. It is hard to see how the Standard’s business pages can with integrity cover the wide range of financial institutions in which BlackRock has interests. A politician can be a newspaper editor. There are plenty of precedents for that. But a newspaper editor cannot be an adviser to an asset manager. Mr Osborne should resign from BlackRock. But his Evening Standard should enhance British democracy rather than detract from it.