What matters more: that an MP has five jobs outside Parliament or that an MP is editing London’s top newspaper? George Osborne’s appointment as Editor of the Evening Standard has led to an outcry on the first issue – but what about the second? Is that not a problem?
How can a Conservative MP who has also been one of the most ideological Chancellors of modern times edit a newspaper if that paper is to preserve any semblance of impartiality?
We all know how fake news has boomed. But are we now admitting that the role of the major-league papers is no longer as providers of news but players in politics?
It appears so from comments made on the Osborne affair. Nicky Morgan, former Education secretary, said liberal Conservatives are “going to make our voices heard, whether it’s me writing articles, whether it’s George being editor of the Evening Standard.” There is an assumption in that statement that newspapers are political platforms.
The Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, has been quoted as saying the case raises the issue of “how much time MPs have to devote to their parliamentary work”. Is that the only issue? What about the conflict of interest?
And look at the fawning story in the Standard itself where Osborne says he is proud to be a Conservative MP but will lead a team of “dedicated and independent journalists”. So how will that independence work? How, for example, will the Standard cover the austerity cuts to London’s services that were initiated by its own editor?
There seems to be an implicit acceptance that for an MP, having six jobs is an issue, but deciding what story leads the Standard every day isn’t. If that’s become the conventional wisdom, it raises bigger issues than whether Osborne should quit as an MP. We need a rethink on the whole question of the part the press play in public life.
Of course, papers have always taken sides. Two hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift used The Examiner to rail against the “contrivance and cunning of stock-jobbers”? But papers have also provided facts. Swift’s contemporary Daniel Defoe produced a detailed account of the hurricane of 1703 – The Storm – still seen as a landmark in British journalism.
Facts and opinion
And for two centuries since, newspapers have run factual news stories and opinionated leader columns side-by-side. But since the Thatcher government, papers like the Mail and Sun have increasingly blurred that distinction and presented political rhetoric in the guise of news. For example, remember the Mail telling us in 2012 that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians could come to the UK. The latest figures say fewer than 300,000 showed up.
Unsurprising therefore that the papers are now seen as political first, editorial second. But this should not be a ‘whatever’ issue – something to dismiss with a shrug. If we believe, as the historian Howard Zinn observed, that: “Democracy depends on citizens being informed.”, then we are witnessing its subversion. We no longer have voting outcomes informed by a free press but by propaganda, defined by former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans as: “persuading people to make up their minds while withholding some of the facts from them.” In my view, the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union show us what happens when propaganda prevails over information.
The media spectrum
There are now broadly three categories of media: the neutral in the middle of a spectrum, such as the BBC, ITN, the ‘i’ and agencies like Reuters and the Press Association; the moderates to each side, such as the Times and Telegraph to the right and Guardian and Huffington Post to the left; and the extremists on each end, like the Mail and Breibart on the right and Morning Star and Canary on the left. By and large the moderates are still offering journalism while the extremists have abandoned it for politics.
This places a huge responsibility on the neutrals and moderates to preserve an informed democracy. The BBC’s editorial guidelines say: “Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences.” Good stuff – but the BBC must walk the talk. James O’Brien is a brilliant broadcaster and polemicist – but not an impartial Newsnight presenter. On the proactive side, the neutrals need to supply the information people need to make educated choices. Recent BBC coverage of the NHS and African famine was a return to form – but it could choose to dig much deeper on big issues from Brexit to social care and unearth the facts politicians and the political press are hiding.
The moderates, too, have a responsibility to keep reporting both sides of the story on the news pages so their readers form an opinion instead of having one foisted on them. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who care about democracy should think about investing in new sources of independent information such as Full Fact. And perhaps some organisation that carries some authority – a university, think-tank or school of journalism – should commission a rigorous analysis of the media that calls out those that no longer follow genuine journalistic principles.
Something similar happened in New York in the late 19th century when sensationalist ‘yellow journalism’; was at its peak. Libraries and universities boycotted the worst offenders and in time, much of the US press came back from the dark side. Central to that process of rehabilitation was Joseph Pulitzer, who had indulged in his own share of lurid populism but ended up setting the New York Times on the progressive, fact-based path it still follows today and founding the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize. He warned: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.”
Not only is that still a relevant warning – but one that recognises the power of the press to shape society. And there is still a chance to turn that formidable power into a positive one – as articulated by US TV anchor-man Dan Rather: “A free and truly independent press is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy.”