(Top photo: HM Treasury Flickr)
When Evgeny Lebedev bought the Evening Standard in 2008, his first move was to launch a giant ad campaign apologising for the paper's previous coverage. To the anger of some staff, giant billboards bearing the paper's Eros logo were hoisted up across London with the message: "Sorry for losing touch."
Today, Lebedev appointed George Osborne – the former Tory chancellor and member of the Bullingdon club, educated at St Paul's and Oxford – as the Standard's new editor.
You might wonder why Osborne would want the role, considering he's still the MP for Tatton and is so uniquely hated in London that he was booed by crowds at the Paralympics when handing out medals, but for Britain's social elite, being an MP isn't what it used to be. A few years ago independent schoolboys were falling over themselves to get a seat in the House – a badge of honour matched only by a Bullingdon tie. The House of Commons was the landowners' Soho House: a great place to drink subsidised beer, get a good last-minute table for dinner in central London and occasionally vote to take things away from poor people.
But now with Labour in crisis and the Tories facing the task of delivering a Brexit, government has become less glamorous and the elite are losing interest. Etonian Cameron was quick to resign his seat after the Brexit catastrophe he created, and only last month Tristram Hunt – UCS and Cambridge-educated – resigned as an MP to go and work at the V&A. Now, George is somehow going to juggle his role in the Commons with his new job: newspaper editor.
If you are horrified by this news, you shouldn't be: the Evening Standard has backed the Tories in every recent Mayoral and General election, even when Zac Goldsmith's 2016 mayoral bid descended into racist farce, stoking up anti-Muslim sentiment and painting his rival, Sadiq Khan, as an extremist. Traditional Tory publications like The Spectator disowned Goldsmith, and other Tory politicians called out his racism, but the Standard became an even louder cheerleader. They ran smear stories about Khan, like "Exposed: Sadiq Khan's family links to extremist organisation" – a front page story about his former brother-in-law once attending the same rally as a hate preacher – and "Why Sadiq Khan cannot escape questions about extremists", a ridiculous hit-piece that stopped just short of accusing Khan of being a terrorist. This continued right up until Khan's spectacular win, when the Standard suddenly celebrated the new Mayor's triumph over political adversity, ignoring the fact that this adversity had largely been created by them.
The Standard's conservatism is more than just political; much of its features coverage reads like a society magazine from the 1930s, with photographs from fancy balls and elite parties. It often runs lengthy photoshoots and interviews with the children of famous people who have done absolutely nothing of note in their own lives, simply for the fact that they're of good stock. Take this galling interview with Lionel Richie's 17-year-old daughter Sofia, where she discusses such exciting topics as one day wanting to have a fashion line, one day wanting to have a reality TV show "about my interests like music and fashion" and once shaking hands with Anna Wintour. The Standard doesn't question this level of vacuousness or privilege, but rather bends over in awe of it:
"Lionel Richie is on tour in Brazil; his daughter is home alone, apart from various members of staff. She's just had breakfast (egg whites and toast), and as we chat, the housekeeper delivers a mug of herbal tea."
The Standard does its best to hide its political affiliation with important campaigns around child literacy and gang violence, as well as tittle-tattle showbiz stories and some good London reporting. But after the first few newsier pages of each paper, its true colours emerge.
Nowhere are these colours clearer than in the paper's housing coverage. Copies of the Standard are used by London's homeless as impromptu mattresses, and on Wednesdays they're plumped by the thickness of the additional property pages. You'd think that, in the throes of a crippling housing crisis, the paper would recognise most Londoners may never own a home in the city. But rather that highlighting the human cost of displacement and gentrification, features centre on smug homeowners who solve the problem of a low-ceilinged basement by building an entire new extension, or "affordable" makeovers that cost tens of thousands of pounds, bought with the help of the bank of mum and dad.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a publication that focuses on high society. If Tatler want to wang on about Kings Road boutiques and who the fittest boys at Eton are, and charge £4.60 for the privilege, they should be free to do so. What is horrifying is that London – the most Labour region in Britain, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world – should have its only newspaper (around a million copies of which are distributed for free) read like a newsletter for the Kensington, Chelsea & Fulham Conservatives Society.
After the news of Osborne's editorship was announced, Ed Milliband joked on Twitter that he would soon take up the editor job at Heat Magazine, and someone even suggested that Tim Farron could take over at VICE. But those gags miss the point: Osborne isn't a bizarre suggestion for the Evening Standard; he's the perfect choice for a paper that prides itself on sneaky, meticulous neoconservatism.
But while Osborne's editorship is a good fit for the paper, it's a damning nail in the coffin of any suggestion that Britain is still a great bastion of liberalism and democracy. Imagine if something like this happened in a country with a more chequered history of corruption: let's say South Africa. Imagine Jacob Zuma's finance minister became the editor of The Cape Times while Zuma was still in power. There would be horror in the West about how South Africa had fallen into new levels of cronyism. Well, that's what's just happened in the UK: a sitting MP, and a member of the ruling party, is the editor of London's only newspaper.
And it's important to remember here that "Editor" is not some ceremonial role where you show up at champagne galas and awards ceremonies. Osborne will be in the office every day, working with the Standard's staff and deciding what's in the paper. On his first day their journalists and editors will sit down with him and he will ask them what stories they're going to run.
Will the politics editor pitch a story about the CPS reviewing the Tories' electoral spending, during an election Osborne masterminded, amid growing evidence of serious electoral fraud? Will the home affairs editor pitch the news that child poverty, now at 30 percent, has risen for the past three years, a damning indictment of Osborne's time as chancellor and the economic austerity he championed? Will the media editor pitch a story about Rupert Murdoch's bid for Sky being investigated by a UK regulator, knowing that the former chancellor used to have secret meetings with Murdoch, and that moved the chess pieces to grease the wheels on his previous (pre-phone hacking) bid?
Or will they pitch Labour hatchet jobs and Tory puff pieces, ringing endorsements of government policy, eager to appease their new boss, Gideon, before he goes off to vote on the very legislation they'll be writing about? The answer seems so obvious it's barely worth discussing.
But of course none of this hypocrisy and conflict of interest will be of any bother to the Standard; it is simply staying true to its values: privilege above diligence, birthright above egalitarianism, posh boys in Chelsea over the millions of normal Londoners who read their paper every week.