The Evening Standard (ES) has explicitly denied allegations that it has accepted millions of pounds from brands like Uber in return for “favourable news coverage” styled as editorial.
The London title, edited by former chancellor George Osborne, is facing claims it has sold "unbranded news stories" to paying commercial partners, set to appear in the paper as early as June.
Open Democracy first reported on the matter, alleging Google and Uber to be among the six brands involved in the reported £3m plan dubbed 'London 2020', however the publisher has emphatically rubbished the report.
In a statement to The Drum, Jon O’Donnell, managing director at ESI commercial, said the idea ES was "selling news" was "grossly inaccurate and a wildly misunderstood interpretation of the London 2020 project."
He said the integrity and independence of the paper's editorial remained "paramount" and said that all commercial content was clearly labelled as such.
He added that to support the campaign commercially, the paper had agreed a number of partnerships with "key clients" consisting of activity across events, traditional display and appropriately signposted content highlighting each of these project areas.
"This will, as with all commercial content, be clearly identifiable as such," he pressed.
"Under no circumstances have these clients been guaranteed news coverage for their own ends, nor would they ever be. Properly signposted commercial content within an editorial product is an accepted part of the news industry and is nothing new for publishers."
"The Evening Standard has a long history in producing important and award-winning campaigns, and we are excited about the prospects that London 2020 will bring to the brand, it's partners and the people of London."
The Drum has reached out to both Google and Uber for a statement, at the time of writing they had yet to respond.
The article on Open Democracy was penned by James Cusick, who previously worked as politics editor at the Independent – which is owned by ESI Media.
Cusick claimed the Standard promised six companies “money-can’t-buy” news coverage in a lucrative deal, “leaving millions of Londoners unaware of who’s paying for their news.”
He also alleged the project was being "directed by Osborne" and effectively swept away the church and state-style divide between the paper's newsroom and sales team.
'London 2020' is set to launch on 5 June, and Open Democracy claimed it would involve six "themed projects" that companies were set to run in tandem with the paper for two years. The schemes are lined up to be focused on issues like clean air, the London housing crisis and tech in the workplace.
According to Open Democracy, however, the six 2020 partners paid some £500,000 to be involved in ES coverage of these projects, which are part of a bigger scheme to "improve London for the benefit of all".
Adding to his denial, the Standard's O’Donnell further explained: "London 2020 is an editorial campaign designed to instigate positive change and support London in becoming a more environmentally and socially sustainable city fit for the future.
"Focusing on areas such as infrastructure, healthcare, environment and enterprise and how these key areas might need to improve to meet the demands of the future form the crux of the editorial direction."
The furore, and subsequent rebuttal, comes amid increased scrutiny around branded content, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) having recently launched a review into how native advertising is signposted online.