Osborne’s new job is a PR coup

Adam Batstone

As big Breaking News stories go, George Osborne being appointed editor of the London Evening Standard may not match the Brexit result, but in the Westminster and London media villages it’s causing quite a stir.

And that may be the key reason why the Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev has made the choice. It’s a headline grabbing appointment which puts, what some of its detractors refer to as “a regional free sheet”, front and centre of the news agenda.

As for the former chancellor’s motivation, that remains slightly less clear. He’s a Londoner and a man fascinated by the gossip and intrigue of the political and media world – but he’s not a newspaper guy. His journalistic credentials so far amount to a failed attempt to join The Times graduate trainee scheme and a short stint on the Daily Telegraph diary column.

It’s probably not about the money. He’s already on the lucrative speaker circuit and also enjoys a generous salary of £650,000 for four days each month with the asset manager Black Rock.

The decision also raises a variety of questions about impartiality. While most newspapers have a political bias, putting a sitting Conservative MP in the editor’s chair is a rarity and a gamble in terms of how the paper’s two million daily readers may react.

Not that Osborne is likely to be Downing St’s Patsy. He was a committed Remainer in a city which bucked the national Brexit trend and it’s possible he may use the Standard platform in a more damaging way than by simply grumbling on the back benches. There won’t be any corks popping in Theresa May’s kitchen today.

Quite apart from how he balances the demands of what – as any editor will say – is a very full time role with his political obligations, how will he ensure that the paper maintains a credible voice on key issues that affect the city and its people?

And what about his constituents in rural Tatton? His commitment to Cheshire may have been tricky as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it seems downright at odds with a job which is fundamentally about putting London first.

The path between journalism and a Westminster career is well trodden.  Former Labour leader Michael Foot edited the Evening Standard during the war and since then many journalists like Matthew Parris and Michael Gove have swapped Fleet St for Westminster. Very few have sought to do both jobs simultaneously.

His predecessor at The Standard Sarah Sands was a surprise appointment as editor of the BBC flagship Today programme with no prior broadcast experience. And to a lesser extent City AM’s decision to appoint Institute of Directors head of comms Christian May as editor indicates there may be something going on maximising impact by making counter intuitive hires.

The announcement comes at a time when the life expectancy of many newspapers is in doubt. Declining sales of print editions means those titles that don’t diversify and embrace digital are probably doomed. The Standard has already brought ex-Downing St head of digital David Tomchak on board and Osborne’s new brief does not include digital products or the London Live TV station. But he will doubtless be keen to embrace new channels that exploit the Standard’s London brand, data and access to the UK’s most important audience.

Lebedev is a wily operator and he will calculate that this hire – in PR terms alone – puts one of his newspapers right back in the spotlight and the subject of much interest and scrutiny. For that reason alone putting George Osborne in the editor’s chair is quite a coup.