George Osborne Hugh Cudlipp Lecture: The Politics of Newspapers
The annual lecture honouring Hugh Cudlipp was given at Regent’s University by former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and current Editor of the London Evening Standard, George Osborne, writes Charlie Bowden.
Fake News, hemp paper, Cairncross, Brexit, the role of journalism and its future all featured in a lively, honest and insightful evening hosted by the London Press Club.
The evening’s talk was opened by Mr Osborne’s self-deprecatingly honest acknowledgement of his limited past editorial experience, prior to his appointment at the London Evening Standard. The sum of it, he confessed, came from editing his student magazine, printed onto hemp paper and unfortunately titled ISIS. The talk continued in this vein punctuated with wit and anecdote throughout.
Mr Osborne went on to reflect on the role of newspapers and the media more generally during his time in office. He noted that the politics of his era, which required a relationship between the two, has changed dramatically in light of technological advancements and social media. The old model which saw both politics and journalism chase each other down to the bottom of the league table of public trust has changed by the advent of the social media revolution. Today the news is already seen via a mobile phone alert hours before the printing presses start to roll. He emphasised that “readers now turn to a paper, online and in print, to help them interpret the news – to get some explanation and attitude, investigation and analysis. The readers don’t want a mouthpiece for the government, or the opposition”. He stressed the role of the paper as a mechanism to help host the national conversation but not as the ones that decide its outcome.
The pressing message throughout the talk was that if quality journalism is to exist and continue to help inform our discussions, quality journalism must prevail, and for quality journalism to prevail somebody therefore has to pay. On survival he admitted that old hierarchical models of politics have collapsed in the wake of the rise of social media. The same hit has been felt by newspapers, struggling to compete with the advertising reach boasted by social media companies. Mr Osborne spoke of the need for “long-term sources of commercial income” and that, perhaps surprisingly, a glimmer of hope comes from fake news. He explained that it was the scandal of fake news and how people care that offers hope and opportunity for the press.
Osborne predicts that, since people need reliable information and business’ no longer want to side themselves alongside damaging fake news, a return to quality, well informed, truthful journalism will come. The social media revolution may have changed the structures of information sharing but it has not removed the necessity of high editorial standards to root out the truth in a world of so much misinformation.
Brexit unsurprisingly reared its head in the talk when Osborne, who campaigned to remain in the EU, spoke of the shift in the relationship with the EU which will see Britain “follow their rules and not shape them”. The ramifications on journalism was in the stance on big tech companies the European Competition Commissioner takes and whether the actions it takes will be able to stop the tide of domination. His opinion that it was a merely a matter of time before regulation came in to hold tech giants accountable was cautioned with the possibility that regulation will only serve to protect the big players from new entrants into the market.
On Cairncross he echoed the concerns of many regarding the decisions of what is of value to the public. He is, after all, better placed than most to voice concerns about the risk of leaving it up to government to decide what is an isn’t in the public interest. He rightly cautioned the grave danger of this possible eventuality.
He finished with a big idea, a data dividend. Placing ownership of one’s data into the hands of the individual. An idea that has floated around the tech industry and has been making some headway in more public circles. All could compete for this data and it would open up a more level and fair playing field. He finished echoing his early statements on the press’s role to promote the conversation and lead discussion: people in a democracy will always need to know what’s going on. Let’s just hope that people realise the necessity of truth, information and the papers role in providing that to the public before it’s too late.