or Fake News under George Osborne’s Editorship
by Marek Bekerman
The concept of Fake News is beginning to dominate current discourse not only within the journalistic community but in a wider public spectrum including, of course, politics. Whenever a trendy term or expression gets hijacked by politicians we can expect trouble. This time round, expect a lot of trouble.
I was so poor at chemistry at school that I made extra effort to prove otherwise, and even took private lessons to improve my grades. I failed miserably probably because I was annoying my chemistry teacher, so in the end I became a journalist to annoy more people. Bad chemistry experience left me with a penchant for metaphors ex chemical labs. In my effort to deconstruct the misused and abused expression “Fake News”, I might employ the word “Russian” as a litmus test of when the news is fake, and when it is not.
But first things first. My late maternal grandfather was born in 1900, and I remember vividly when he boasted in front of us that he had been born in the previous century. He told us that the 20th century started the following year at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 1901. We believed him unconditionally.
Fast-forward to December 1999. The whole world is preparing to celebrate the start of the New Millennium, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is rehearsing to greet the First Dawn of the New Era by singing on a beach in New Zealand – one year early. The media are gearing up to go extra big on a mega news story. My repeated but timid pleading with the Newsroom editors at the BBC World Service in London to prevent the world from committing to a blatant piece of Fake News goes unnoticed, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity becomes even more relative with a new interpretation of calendar time.
Fast-forward again. It is late 2005, and I am taking part in a round-table on Ukrainian journalism at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Ukrainian colleagues are discussing what is making the news in their country, which is taking in a fresh breath of air after the Orange Revolution and relishing the taste of the free media. But I cannot really focus on what they are saying: all I can hear in my head is the pulsating quote on the essence of news ascribed in different versions to either William Randolph Hearst, George Orwell, or Lord Northcliffe: “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising”. I make only one modest intervention by suggesting to the round-table participants that perhaps instead of covering yet another parliamentary scuffle or pre-election campaign, they should address the “real story” for Ukraine which for me was: “Who stole all the money, how did they do it, and where have they hidden it?” My idea is greeted with steely looks which I interpret to mean: “Yet another foreigner who knows nothing about our country coming up with yet another absurd news story”. It looks like I was wrong again, and so was my grandfather.
While the fake story about the new millennium predictably never got editorially corrected, the Ukrainian one needed nearly a decade to get me vindicated. It took Yanukovych to become the country’s president first in order for the media to re-programme precisely to my suggested top-line: “Who stole all the money, how did they do it, and where have they hidden it?” To be able to understand the organic nature of such volte-face, we need to take a look at the relationship between politics and journalism in a country like Ukraine, before we can finally cross over to Britain, and to George Osborne himself.
Another round-table a few years ago, Ukraine again, and the guest of honour is a well-known MP who is also an editor of a major newspaper, and at the same time a substantial media owner. My question about the obvious conflict of interest is greeted with indignation, if not outrage by most participants. It takes me a few trips to the Caucasus and Central Asia to understand that my concept of conflict of interest is “fake news” in that part of the world. Any self-respecting minister or his/her deputy could not do without their own newspaper in a country like Azerbaijan, while TV licenses in neighbouring states would be distributed along party lines and political alliances.
The little snippets of information about that kind of world reach us, the daily consumers of Western democracy, in the form of isolated articles and occasional critical opinion columns. Through contrast and apposition, they serve to reinforce our sense of how lucky we are, here in the UK, to live in a system with independent media and the freedom of speech, where the democratic process should make such practices impossible. Possible Western counterexamples such as Berlusconi’s TV channels are treated as an aberration proving the rule, and there is probably even a Willy Wonka exemption rule that if you own a few chocolate factories in Ukraine on top of a media empire as a serving president, it still does not really count.
But what if your family owns a wallpaper business in Britain, and you are invited as a serving member of parliament and a former cabinet minister to be the editor-in-chief of a big newspaper? This is what has happened to George Osborne, the former Chancellor seen by many as a prime minister in-waiting for the post-Brexit Britain. George the Chancellor was defenestrated abruptly by Brexit and crashed back onto the backbenches as an ordinary MP for the Tatton constituency in Cheshire after the referendum. But he swiftly set out to rebuild his power base with no less than six highly-paid jobs, including his full-time position in parliament, and now another full-time job as editor-in-chief of a daily London newspaper, The Evening Standard.
No wonder another MP, John Nicholson, describes Osborne as a superman. His fellow MP, Gisela Stuart, though, thinks the former chancellor should see a career counsellor to help him determine what his “day job” actually is. Meanwhile, in his northern constituency of Tatton, more than 175,000 people have signed a petition demanding that George resign his seat, if he wants to edit a paper at the same time. Mr Osborne himself does not see any problem with his multiple career personalities, and there is a chorus of voices clacking in unison about creativity, ability and extraordinary qualities of the former chancellor, who years earlier had failed to qualify for a traineeship scheme for university graduates at the Times in his quest to become a journalist and went into politics instead.
Osborne did not bother to notify the UK’s advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba), which assesses possible conflict of interest when former ministers take up new jobs, until virtually hours before his appointment as editor of the Evening Standard was made public. Members of the committee, which is a public body sponsored by the UK’s cabinet office, usually take about a month to look into each case. Their advice is rarely made public when it is negative, simply because former ministers usually withdraw after receiving the committee’s advice not to proceed with the job application.
Mr Osborne’s fait accompli technique had been used before with Acoba, when he took up another role soon after losing his government job. He was rebuked by the committee for failing to wait for their advice before announcing his chairmanship of a think-tank Northern Powerhouse. This no doubt deliberate repetition suggests that the purely advisory body without a mandate to sanction politicians is being turned into a paper tiger by the likes of Mr Osborne.
And this is where the wallpaper business comes into play. Osborne & Little company was set up in the 1960’s by George’s father and his brother-in-law to become a successful business with a global outreach by the end of the last millennium. Bill and Hillary Clinton were among many celebrity buyers of their high-end wallpaper range catering for the rich and famous. In media terms, Osborne & Little have normally occupied lifestyle and art and design sections of newspapers and magazines, until a property deal came to light in 2015, in which an off-shore property development company based in the British Virgin Islands had bought Osborne & Little former headquarters situated in the trendy London area of Clapham. This story took their wallpapers from the glossy sections onto the front pages of major UK newspapers – but why?
Soon after George Osborne became the Chancellor in 2010, he waged a war on tax avoidance schemes within the British system, which allow to exploit legal loopholes by setting off-shore trusts and companies. He promised a crackdown on such practices which he called “morally repugnant”. Several years earlier, the wallpaper company in which he owns about a 15% stake, had sold their premises in Clapham for £6mln to Nightingale Mews Incorporated to let it convert them into 45 flats with the full knowledge that it was an off-shore entity, and likely to avoid a potential tax of about £2mln in the future.
Osborne & Little and Nightingale Mews Inc. jointly applied for a planning permission to build the flats. Several years later, Nightingale Mews sold all the flats for about £20mln and made a handsome profit of about £8mln – clearly tax-free. Soon afterwards, the company dissolved. An off-shore tax expert said it would be virtually impossible to establish who was behind the company. When the British media contacted the office of the Chancellor, it declined any comment, but one of the spokespersons was quoted as saying: “This is a totally bogus and desperate story”. In other words, Fake News again.
Now, if you suddenly stop and shout: “Hang on a minute, this a classic scheme universally condemned as morally repugnant which is used by Russian officials and oligarchs when they siphon off stolen or laundered money via proxy off-shore bogus companies”, rest assured that this surely cannot be the case here – this is Britain, and there is no way a Chancellor can use a dummy to make a double deal and pay no tax on it – which would be a real triple whammy. No, it is impossible – or rather, is it impossible to prove?
It is not the first time in British history that a former politician or cabinet minister will edit a newspaper. There are several precedents which can be easily Googled and further dissected, but for the sake of the present context it is enough to note that it is the first time that somebody who has never really worked as a journalist before becomes an editor-in-chief of a major British newspaper. A job that most experienced newspaper industry professionals describe as a “more-than-a-full-time-job”. What is a possible explanation for this fast-track career change? Some Osborne-friendly media types came up with a version that George is simply a genius, and one of his Conservative chums described him as an exceptional writer.
But many cynical detractors crudely emphasise the fact that The Evening Standard is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, the son of the Russian billionaire, Alexandr, and that appointing George will increase the Russian influence in the British media, and by extension, in politics. Is it not the case that Russia is the main, if not the only source of Fake News? The voices of such individuals as Michael Haseltine, also the former British cabinet minister, have been drowned out in the growing paranoia about “the Russian interference in the US election”. Lord Haseltine pointed out that the media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, was also a foreign media owner who had influenced British media and politics, including the outcome of several general elections, for decades. His news who to vote for before elections was not considered fake, was it? Evgeny Lebedev himself said that Osborne was the obvious choice for the position, and described him as an editor of substance, while his paper announced that the new editor would keep his job as an MP, and would “continue to vote and contribute in Parliament in afternoons after the paper goes to print”.
But what does this story mean for journalism? It clearly stretches its definition even further than the digital age and algorithmic automation by moving the goalposts of what we know to be the editorial process – the central part of what journalism is about, if it is to be any different from manipulative media content generation which we now so liberally brand as “Fake News”. A professor of media ethics at Goldsmiths, Tim Crook, says that the role of editor in British journalism should remain the pinnacle of professional journalistic achievement and that the Osborne affair risks compromising British journalism.
Once a story like the sale of Osborne & Little HQ to an off-shore phantom is accepted as a “bogus story” or fake news, anything can be made to be true, including the former Chancellor’s ability to edit his paper in the morning, vote and make speeches in Parliament in the afternoon, and do his remaining four jobs in the evening with some spare time for entertaining Mr Lebedev. This feat could cast even Stalin’s literary prowess into the shadow of trivial insignificance. What? It does not pass your reality check or a closer scrutiny? Never mind – you can always paper over the cracks in so-construed truth with the Osborne & Little floral patterns. After all, doesn’t Cervantes teach us that facts are the enemy of the truth?