George Osborne as Evening Standard editor: The appointment that stunned the paper's own newsroom
‘You cannot be serious!’ No, not the old John McEnroe quote, but the reaction of most of the journalistic profession and the editorial staff of the London Evening Standard, the paper George Osborne has been sensationally appointed to edit.
Inside the newspaper – where senior deputy editor Ian Walker was the popular favourite for the job – incredulity reigned, together with the firm belief that it amounted to an ‘old pals’ act deal with his friend and confidant, the newspaper’s Russian oligarch proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev.
But the shock appointment raises more questions than it answers. For starters, there’s the ex-chancellor’s lack of journalistic experience – if you exclude a brief freelance reporter role on the Daily Telegraph’s diary column 25 years ago.
Osborne, it also turns out, failed to get a place on the Times trainee journalism scheme after he graduated from Oxford in 1992 and was similarly rejected by the Economist.
An equally big question mark is posed by his declared intent to remain an MP for his Tatton constituency in Cheshire and to continue championing his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ campaign.
While the biggest question of all is likely to centre on a potential of conflict of interest scenario given Osborne’s recent appointment to a £650,000 a year, 48 days per year role as an advisor to BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset management firm. It’s a role that sits at odds with editing the newspaper whose city pages are hugely sensitive at the heart of Europe’s financial capital.
Even before he got his BlackRock role, the independently wealthy Osborne was already the UK’s highest-earning MP with over £600,000 from speaking engagements on top of his £74,962 parliamentary salary.
Intriguingly, the news of his Evening Standard appointment was broken by the BBC’s new media editor, Amol Rajan, a former editor of the Lebedev-owned Independent newspaper and still believed to be a confidante of Evgeny himself .
Among Evening Standard journalists there was a degree of scepticism over Lebedev’s statement implying that Osborne had applied for the job, rather than it being the ‘strange and cosy’ deal between dinner party pals that most of the staff suspect.
Reacting to his appointment to succeed current editor Sarah Sands, who is leaving to edit the BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, Osborne – who plans to edit the paper four days a week – said: "This is such an exciting and challenging job and I am thrilled to take it on.
"Growing up as a Londoner, I have always known that the Evening Standard is an institution that plays a huge part in the lives of the city and its people.It’s a great honour that I can play a part as leader of the editorial team, making the Evening Standard the definitive voice of the world’s most exciting city.
"I am proud to be a Conservative MP, but as editor and leader of a team of dedicated and independent journalists, our only interest will be to give a voice to all Londoners. We will fearless as a paper fighting for their interests. We will judge what the government, London’s politicians and the political parties do against this simple test: is it good for our readers and good for London? If it is, we’ll support them. If it isn’t, we’ll be quick to say so.
"So much is now at stake about the future of our country and its capital city. I will remain in Parliament, where that future is decided."
Those words are likely to send a chill down the spine of Theresa May and her Downing Street team who, I am told, were kept in the dark until the BBC’s dramatic news break.
It raises the likelihood that ardent pro-remainer Osborne will have a ready made platform via the paper’s profile and 900,000 strong readership to argue the case against Brexit. And few seriously doubt that a particular attraction of the editor’s chair is the payback opportunity it presents after his brutal and unceremonious sacking by Theresa May.
Carefully avoiding the rapidly building political and journalistic hostility over his shock choice of editor, Evgeny Levedev, who is also the proprietor of the online Independent, said: "In George we have appointed someone of huge political achievement, and economic and cultural authority.
"Once he put himself forward for the position, he was the obvious choice. I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces the Evening Standard’s standing and influence in London, and whose political viewpoint – liberal on social issues and pragmatic on economic ones – closely matches those of many of our readers."
But as one Standard veteran told me after reading the Lebedev statement: "That all seems fine and dandy if you ignore one simple fact: George has never really been a journalist of any sort let alone the editor of a daily newspaper. It smacks of a celebrity/PR appointment in which he’ll be a frontman figure while the real professionals get on with the job of actually producing a newspaper."
Following the recent reduction in the Evening Standard's print editions, Osborne apparently believes he can edit the newspaper in the morning and attend parliament and do his collection of other jobs and lucrative speaking engagements in the afternoons and evenings, much to the disbelief and private derision of the paper's journalists, a source said.
They added that many of the editorial staff on the normally pro-Conservative title found themselves agreeing with one of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's better Twittersphere attempts at humour when he tweeted: "It's taking muti-tasking to an extreme level – what a joke!!"
As a former government minister, Osborne will have to seek the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before he takes up his seat in the editor’s office – in the building the Evening Standard still shares with the staunchly pro-Brexit and pro-Theresa May Daily Mail. Its editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, who this week collected the coveted Newspaper of the Year accolade at the British Press Awards, famously backed Theresa May’s instant decision to boot Osborne out of the cabinet as soon as she took office.
The incredulous Twitter tsunami of reactions to the Osborne editorship appointment included much mirth and some classic quips.
From former BBC journalist and predecessor MP for Osborne’s Tatton constituency Martin Bell came: "It sounds like fake news to me . Are you sure it isn’t?"
Tory MP and staunch Brexiteer Philip Davies weighed in with: "I’m sure there are many newspaper editors who will be interested to know that their job is not a full-time job… He cannot be the editor of a newspaper and stay on in parliament. I doubt there is a single MP in any party who thinks it is acceptable. It’s power-crazed."
BBC Daily Politics presenter and ex-Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil openly derided the appointment when it broke minutes before he went on air, tweeting: "When made editor of the Sunday Times I was criticised because I hadn’t been an editor before. Mr Osbone hasn’t even been a journalist… my threshold for being shocked just rose a little more."
And with those words, Andrew Neil captured the prevailing mood of the stunned world of journalism, politics and the wider world beyond.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and a columnist for The New European. He is a co-author a recent book on newspapers’ fight for survival in the digital age