Borne again – George Osborne on life at the Evening Standard and how to pitch a story

His appointment as the Evening Standard’s editor triggered debate across politics, media and PR. Here, former chancellor and MP George Osborne addresses his critics and tells comms pros exactly what his plans are, and how they can help. Oh, and he doesn’t rule out a return to politics…

By John Higginson,

You’ve covered some big stories since becoming editor. How have you managed?

I jumped in at the deep end with editing the Standard. In the past few months, we’ve had everything from terrorist attacks to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower to a general election, the ongoing drama of Donald Trump and a royal retirement. So it has exposed me to the whole gamut of stories that newspapers have to cover. Of course, some of the individual events are themselves very moving, such as the loss of life in the Manchester bombing. They challenge you, as a newspaper, to cover them in a way that is informative and original, without being prurient.

What is the role of the modern newspaper editor?

The basic role remains the same: to inform and entertain. If you are only informing and everything you are producing is worthy and serious, then it’s human nature that people don’t want that. What I am trying to do to the Evening Standard – and I don’t think this is a contradiction in terms – is to take it both upmarket and downmarket. I want it to have the very best political commentary, and I want it to inform readers about the best theatre show in London or the latest art exhibition, but I also think we are perfectly entitled to entertain people with the latest pictures of ‘it girls’ or whatever Kendall Jenner is up to at the moment. A lot of our readers will be interested in Brexit, but they also want to know what is happening on Love Island, and you don’t need to separate the two.

A newspaper also has to support itself. It is not an act of philanthropy. This is a business that makes money through its advertising and it is an editor’s job to make that happen. We have an excellent marketing department, run by Jon O’Donnell, but I have made a point of meeting leading advertising executives and some of the chief executives of the biggest advertisers in our paper. I have to make sure we remain profitable.

What is a typical day for George Osborne, Evening Standard editor? If there is one…

My contract has me doing this four days a week. When I arrived, there was only one edition and that had to go off stone at 11.15am. I’m in at around 7am with the team and we have our first news conference at 8am, but I have introduced a second edition. Indeed, I was sending the second edition off when you arrived. On exceptional days, we have four. I wanted to show we could move with the events of the day.

How are you changing the Evening Standard?

When I was a child, there was no internet, and no morning TV even, so the Standard kept the capital informed of what was going on during the day. I now assume that, when someone picks up the Standard, they are already aware of what is happening in the world because they picked up that information on their smartphone. So what I am trying to do with the paper is give it a bit more attitude and break stories.

What are the differences you have found between the worlds of journalism and politics?

In some respects you are handling similar subject matter: what’s going on in the world.

When you’re a politician, you’re advancing your own cause; newspapers are better when they provide a mix of opinions. I reject the classic view that politicians ‘do’ and journalists ‘write’ and ‘criticise’. We are all part of the same discussion among the people of Britain about how we want to lead our lives and govern our country. Newspapers can play a part in informing that. I never took the view that they were as influential as they were credited with being, nor do I take the view that they have lost their influence.

Newspapers are an important part of shaping the discussion we have. The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund does some very important things around the capital. When we had the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we raised £5m very quickly because people saw the Evening Standard as the natural place for Londoners to rally around, and that is a very precious thing. This paper’s been going for 190 years but you have to preserve its reputation as the voice of the capital.

There has been a lot of criticism of you being too Conservative. What do you say to that?

Unlike many papers, our readers are split down the middle as to how they voted in the general election, and I think that is a great opportunity for the newspaper. We are not just for one party or another – we approach all the political issues with a certain set of values, which are true to the newspaper, and, I believe, true to the city. We are pro-business, socially liberal, internationalist – we care about our whole society. We are not talking for one party or one class or one group. We will criticise a Conservative government if it is not living up to those values and we will criticise a Labour opposition if it isn’t either. I’ve had complaints from readers that I am too tough on Jeremy Corbyn and from others that I am too tough on Theresa May. To me, that means we are getting it right.

There is a real gap in the middle of politics at the moment between the Corbynistas and the hard Brexiteers, and I think that is where the Evening Standard is and where London is and where our readers are. This was a paper that was already espousing a political philosophy that I shared. 

What have been your biggest challenges?

The toughest day I had was the morning after the bomb in Manchester. It came so late in the night that most of the morning papers were unable to cover it. So we were really the first newspaper to cover the tragedy in depth. As an editor, it is your call on which pictures to use. I was confronted with a whole load of photos of dead or injured people, and children in distress, separated from their parents. As a parent, and as a human, your immediate reaction is horror when you see those photographs.

As an editor, you have to make a judgement about which photos you use and which ones represent an intrusion into the grief of the family. At the same time, you have a responsibility to tell the nation what it is like when someone commits a terrorist atrocity. I found that a very challenging morning emotionally, as well as professionally. I erred on the side of caution by not putting out photos of the victims and by blurring faces, and I held back the name of the bomber. A paper has to be a responsible citizen.

What makes a great communicator?

The key thing in communication is to take complex ideas and make them simple. Great communicators are able to do that. Any time you hear anyone say it’s too complicated an idea to get across, they are just not trying hard enough or they are not good enough. Even the most complicated ideas can be communicated to people in clear and simple ways.

If an Influence reader wants to get a story into the Standard about something great that their organisation has done, what advice would you give them?

We are interested in stories that are about overcoming the odds; they are about conflict between two sets of ideas; they are about the unexpected and entertaining. If you just get sent a press release saying “Here is our latest product, please write about it”, that’s not really going to help us. Every day we receive 10 times as much stuff as gets in. My job is to edit that down based on what we think will inform and entertain our readers, so, if you put yourself into the mind of what the editor and their team are trying to do, you will have a better chance of success. My obligation is to my readers.

You have faced criticism for holding a number of different posts. How do you make sure there’s no conflict of interest?

Because it’s at a newspaper, it is so transparent what job I am doing. Unlike any other newspaper editor in Britain, people know what my various financial interests are: they are not opaque. They are perfectly transparent for all to see. People would be quick to jump on any perceived conflict. I certainly don’t have a problem. When I am here doing this job, I am here doing it as the Evening Standard editor, committed to delivering the best news for my readers.

You have been accused of using the Standard to get revenge on the person who sacked you as chancellor. Is that the case?

I treat this job as living up to my readers as the Evening Standard editor, and I will call it as I see it. When I think there are weaknesses in the government or the prime minister, I have an obligation to say that. I was, or rather we as a newspaper were, ahead of some of the rest of the media in spotting some of these deficiencies. The job of the newspaper is to be the sceptical, questioning voice.

Do you see yourself ever going back into politics?

I don’t rule it out. I never say never but I am really enjoying this life. I find it very challenging. It is great, having had a career at the top of British politics, to have this new challenging career, so I feel no huge rush to get back into politics.

Do you think Britain’s influence has been reduced as a result of the Brexit vote?

I campaigned against Brexit because I thought it would diminish Britain’s influence in the world. I think it has diminished Britain’s influence in the world. But I now want to make sure that the loss of influence is kept to a minimum, rather than projected to the maximum, and that is about the kind of departure that we make from the EU. Londoners and businesses in London do not want a hard Brexit that takes us out of the meaningful relationships we have with our neighbours.

John Higginson is the founder of Higginson PR, and former political editor of Metro

Interview originally published in Influence magazine, Q3 2017.

Featured image courtesy of flickr user Richter Frank-Jurgen

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One comment on “Borne again – George Osborne on life at the Evening Standard and how to pitch a story
  1. Simon Montague, communications consultant says:

    A little intrigued by Mr Osborne’s advice on getting stories into the paper. I didn’t expect ‘overcoming the odds’ to be top of his list, and thought that others were missing from his list. For me – having worked on both sides of the fence – I look for and would seek to offer stories that affect the audience’s lives, jobs and economic and financial prospects; that are about great entertainment, culture and sport; that shed light on their top social concerns – e.g. environment, education; that fit into or provide a new angle on the wider current news context (a key consideration when trying to raise the profile of an otherwise relatively uninteresting project, widget or service); that hold the powerful to account (a critical function of journalism); and that – in some way – pass the ‘my Mum’ test: would my Mum and I talk about this story over a cup of tea.
    But I only want to hear those stories if they are relevant to my audience, and I will block you forever if you spam me with stories about gas pipelines in Russia when I’m the editor of Grazia (which I’m not).

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