George Osborne: 'I want the Standard to be the most influential paper in Britain'

Former chancellor George Osborne says being a newspaper editor is 'more fun and more interesting' than he thought it would be. And he has ambitions for the London Evening Standard to have national - even international - impact.

George Osborne: 'I want the Standard to be the most influential paper in Britain'

"What would you like? You don’t want the Ben Bradlee look? What about with the sleeves rolled up?" George Osborne, the most famous rookie newspaper editor in Britain, is eager to make suggestions as he poses for photos in his office at the London Evening Standard in Kensington.

The former chancellor of the exchequer, who was sacked by prime minister Theresa May in July 2016 and left the Commons in May this year after 16 years as an MP, describes himself repeatedly as "an ex-politician" but he has not lost his political antennae.

While Osborne talks about his first front page, which is hanging on the wall and bears the headline "Brussels twists knife on Brexit", Campaign’s photographer leans across to snap it. Osborne stops him. "Can we just control the pictures?" he interjects. "I haven’t cleaned up my desk." 

I had many choices about what I could do after government. I chose newspapers. They have a real opportunity with this thirst for news

Osborne, who is 46, started as editor in May, after his shock appointment by Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor, and he is enjoying it. "Editing a newspaper is a completely brilliant opportunity for me and I’ve found it great. If anything, it’s been more fun than I thought it would be – more fun and more interesting," Osborne says of his time at the Evening Standard, where I worked from 2001 to 2015 (I remain a contributor). 

Osborne’s reference to Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who exposed Watergate in the 1970s, hints at his ambition for the free London paper: to rattle cages and make a national, even an international, impact.

"I have a relatively straightforward ambition which is that I want it to be the most influential paper in Britain and entertaining at the same time," he says, explaining how he is trying to make the Evening Standard "a must-go-to newspaper every day, the paper that’s telling you what’s going in the world – the best writing and cracking stories – whether it’s in Westminster or in fashion or in the theatre or in sport or business."

The aforementioned front page about Brexit, which includes a photo of model Cara Delevingne and a blurb about Anthony Joshua’s boxing match, is a good example, he says. "It’s that mix. You can’t be boring but you can’t only be an entertainment rag. We’ve got to be somewhere in between."

He continues: "I really do think there’s a great opportunity [to be the most influential paper]. That’s not to disparage other newspapers, but I think there’s a big prize to be grabbed." His paper already has a 900,000 circulation, which makes it the fourth-largest UK paper in print, behind The Sun, Metro and Daily Mail, which are all around 1.5 million, but its global, monthly online audience of 15.6 million is a fraction of MailOnline and Sun Online.

Osborne has thrown himself into the job and impressed the ad industry by pressing the flesh with agencies and advertisers from the start. He has filled the front page with political scoops, expanded the comment pages, used its leaders to rail against Brexit and savage May, and has brought back political cartoons courtesy of Christian Adams and Gerald Scarfe.

"A cartoon sums up what you can do with a newspaper," Osborne says. "It’s been around for 200, 300 years, it adds to the political coverage and, at the same time, it’s entertaining and colourful and clever – all in one device, it does all those things. At its best, that’s what a newspaper does."

The Westminster village has been lapping up the political coverage. Robert Peston, political editor of ITV, says: "He’s doing remarkably well as an editor. No-one should be remotely surprised – one of the things he concentrated on in government was how to make the best possible use of the media." But critics, including some in advertising, say Osborne’s obsession with May and Brexit is making the paper feel "one dimensional" and "single issue". What matters to political insiders may be different from what 900,000 commuters want on their way home.

"We are living in a very challenging political time," Osborne counters. "Brexit is an enormous challenge." He says the paper has covered many other stories, including the rise of moped-riding robbers and a spate of acid attacks. It has also run a campaign against modern slavery. "I’m trying to mix it up," he says, promising more investigations and a redesign.  

I think it’s part of my role as editor to help sell the paper to advertisers
George Osborne 

Osborne says he has endeavoured to "broaden" the political coverage. He hopes it is "more engaging" and "more informed" and insists it was right to appoint a Brussels correspondent at a time when there are pressing London stories, including the Grenfell Fire aftermath. He concedes: "There’s a bit of a soap opera about an ex-politician editing a paper, so people notice it more, I suspect." But he claims the Evening Standard gets "some of the biggest pick-ups on the days we splash on politics".

He is also keen to praise the team he inherited – "as good a team as I’ve worked with", he says, comparing them to Treasury civil servants. "I see myself as the conductor of a very good orchestra."

Nonetheless, he remains sensitive about suggestions he has been using his editorship to get revenge on May. "I’m only interested in what I think my readers are interested in and would be interested in," he maintains. Referring to the times his paper has criticised the Prime Minister or the Brexit negotiations, Osborne says he made "a judgment call" and argues he’s often been proved right. While he has had no contact with May since she sacked him, Osborne points out that she has given an interview to the paper and he ran a leader praising her recent race-audit initiative.  

The Evening Standard brings in about £70m a year, chiefly from advertising and sponsorship, and has been profitable for the past couple of years after going free in 2009. Osborne has been happy to drum up business with Jon O’Donnell, managing director of commercial for parent company ESI Media, which also owns the now online-only Independent. 

"I think it’s part of my role as editor to help sell the paper to advertisers," Osborne says. He shows off recent issues that featured a translucent, "frosted" cover wrap for Game of Thrones on Sky and a big promotion for Dunkirk, which included articles from the paper in 1940.

He has hosted drinks and attended dinners for agencies and given off-the-record interviews in front of clients that would cost a fortune on the global conference circuit (Osborne made £1.1m in speaker fees in his 10 months as a backbench MP after losing his job as chancellor).

Simon Davis, chief executive of Blue 449, says: "From an editorial point of view, he’s having fun and it’s fun to watch. As a massive leftie, I was shocked to find him very good company. He’s surprisingly self-aware and self-effacing." Josh Krichefski, chief executive of MediaCom, adds: "Osborne is razor-sharp and affable. We hosted a client evening with him, where he was very open and honest. Having an editor with an intrinsic understanding of every business sector and the challenges some of our clients face is an asset that the paper could find a way to leverage better."

Commercially, the Evening Standard is faring reasonably well. In a tough market, where UK newspaper print ad revenues have fallen by 14% over the past 12 months, the paper has lost 3%, according to Nielsen estimates, although industry sources suggest the decline could be steeper. Additional revenues come from online and live events, such as London Food Month, which debuted in June, and the Progess 1000, an annual list of the most influential Londoners, which was unveiled at Tate Modern in October.

ESI Media was named Media Brand of the Year and was shortlisted for Sales Team of the Year at Campaign’s Media Week Awards in October. However, the pressure to trim costs persists. Most editorial staff earning more than £30,000 received no pay rise this autumn at the start of the new financial year although Osborne says editorial has "a stable budget". There have also been redundancies within the commercial team. 

Osborne is said to have little involvement in the online operation, although he takes an interest, and Davis issues a warning: "ESI Media has a challenge because they have to define their digital purpose. They’re coming into a world with Wi-Fi on trains and it’s going to be increasingly hard [for a print product]."

Osborne might have charmed media buyers but many in adland have mixed views about his political record and the Cameron government’s attitude to advertising – notably the decision to shut the Central Office of Information, which had a reputation for award-winning and effective work on health, road safety and other issues. Osborne is unapologetic. "We had to save money," he says. "The government’s advertising budget had mysteriously ballooned in the two years before the election we won," he adds, arching an eyebrow. But he maintains he was a supporter of all the creative industries, which include advertising, and there was a "spillover" that benefitted the ad industry. 

I think I had a successful political career. I did a lot of things I was very proud of. Do I want to look back? Not really

The pushback is that Osborne was too friendly with the big US tech companies. Now that he is in the news publishing business, how does he feel about global giants such as Facebook, which reported £842m in UK revenues and paid only £5m in corporation tax in 2016 – despite his decision to introduce a diverted-profits tax to stem the offshoring of ad revenues? "I am pro-tech," he declares. "There’s been incredible innovation in the past 10 to 15 years that has vastly increased consumer choice." But Osborne says he did try to "get more tax from them" and other countries have copied Britain’s diverted-profits tax. "People will judge how well I did," he adds.

As regulation catches up with technology, Osborne is confident that some of the problems in online media – from fake news to tax avoidance – will be resolved. Google and Facebook "will find themselves drawn into many of the legal and regulatory restraints that sit around newspapers", he predicts.

He has been an advertising client himself. He ran the Conservatives’ general election campaigns and worked with M&C Saatchi’s creative guru, Jeremy Sinclair, on the image of Alex Salmond with Ed Miliband in his breast pocket – a piece of political communication that, arguably, swung the 2015 vote. Sinclair says: "Osborne is an advertising enthusiast. He likes it and gets it. He is more instinctive and bolder than his political partner, David Cameron, which gave us a good balance and a really good client."

Osborne might have been notable by his absence at ad industry events during his chancellorship but he makes a persuasive case that lack of interference by politicians is probably a good thing for an industry that prides itself on self-regulation. However, now that the Brexit negotiations are looming, he says the ad industry needs to "make its voice heard" on issues such as free movement of talented people, data protection and copyright. "It shouldn’t be afraid of rattling the cage," he says, particularly when other industries, such as finance and automotive, are lobbying hard to gain concessions from the government.

Osborne’s decision to move into newspapers – a sector under pressure – was a vote of confidence for the medium and he is optimistic about the future. "I had many choices about what I could do after government," he says. "I chose to go into newspapers. It was my idea. I think they have a real opportunity when there’s this thirst for news." Once again, he takes inspiration from the US, which he describes as being further ahead, singling out The Washington Post and The New York Times. The latter landed "a fantastic scoop" with the Harvey Weinstein revelations, he notes.

Osborne is said to have told friends he hopes the Evening Standard can become something like a London version of The New York Times and doesn’t baulk at the suggestion, even though he has a far smaller editorial team of only 165 and no internet paywall.

"Its hearts and roots are in London," he says of the paper, "so I think it must always cover London stories. But it doesn’t have to be a provincial newspaper. It can be a national and international newspaper as well. It helps that London is a great, international city. I want it to be both – I want it to cover what is going in City Hall but also what’s going on in the White House." Later, he notes: "We can reach people all over the world."

His dreams of expansion may not be entirely fanciful. ESI Media has looked at buying Metro and The Independent has taken Saudi investment.

Journalists say Osborne is "putting in the hours" from 7am and "very sure of his opinions" but "he’s not a micro-manager". He’s a "natural leader writer" who is "annoyingly good" and "fast" at bashing out editorials, they say. But some in the newsroom remain uneasy. One person recalls HL Mencken’s line that journalism’s relationship to a politician should be like a dog to a lamp-post and says: "We’ve got the lamp-post in charge."

Speculation continues to swirl about Osborne’s ambitions at Westminster, but he repeats the line about being an ex-politician. "Is it behind me?" he says, offering the question. "Yeah." So will he rule out a return to elected politics? "I haven’t ruled it out. But that’s only because I think it’s foolish to say never. I have to say I think it’s very unlikely. I think I had a successful political career. I did a lot of things I was very proud of and got to Downing Street. Do I want to look back? Not really."

As well as his job at the Evening Standard, Osborne has a clutch of advisory roles, including a £650,000-a-year gig for investor Black Rock, a shareholder in Uber, which is fighting a ban from Transport for London. He says it is not a conflict of interest. "Everyone can see what we write. There’s no hidden agenda because it’s all printed every day," Osborne claims, without addressing the point that omission is as powerful as inclusion when it comes to journalism. "Because I was a politician, all these things are declared," he continues. "There’s no other newspaper group in Britain where you know all of the financial interests of the editor." He pauses, his eyes hardening:  "You know exactly where I’m coming from. Big newspaper groups have lots of commercial interests – but you know what mine are."

His desk, which he didn’t want photographed, is tidy by the standards of those of most journalists, with just a few papers and letters on it. On the walls are framed Evening Standard pages, including a sports page showing Chelsea, the football team he supports, being crowned Premier League champions, and a ghostly painting of Parliament by Idris Khan – one of the only political mementoes in the room.

There is also a small bronze bust of Sir Winston Churchill – an award from the Churchill family, he explains. Churchill was another former chancellor, of course. He missed out on the Conservative leadership, had his "wilderness" years – including a period in the US and a little bit of journalism for the Evening Standard – before returning to become prime minister in his country’s hour of need. It’s a tale that Osborne, who studied history at Oxford, will know well.

Osborne says: "I hope I can stay here for many years." But where does the job take him then? One minister who remains an ally says: "Who knows? I don’t think George knows." 

Peston says: "My view is George has never left politics and never will leave politics. I just think he’s someone who wants to have influence. He’s a pragmatist. He’ll find a way, whether it’s through elected politics or outside politics, to have a voice in politics."

For now, Osborne is certain where he, and his paper, should be. "I think there is a big, largely unoccupied space, which is people in this country who are concerned that our politics seem to have been pushed to the fringes – either it’s hard Brexiteers or Corbynistas. The pro-business, internationalist, liberally minded voice is not really heard," he says. "I want us to be a voice for those people. I think it’s the right voice for London and I happen to think it is right for the rest of the UK. Of course, now with the internet, a lot of our readers are not London-based."

There speaks a former politician who likes to make the headlines, not just write them.