From Wallpaper to Newspaper

or Fake News under George Osborne’s Editorship

by Marek Bekerman

ES OsborneThe 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.

Petro-Poroshenko-the-Willy-Wonka-Of-Ukraine--117338The 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.

osborne-little-matthew-williamson-leopardo-wallpaper-10m-roll-_4_-44363-p

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.

The boys togetherBut 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?

The Year of the Penguin

Lovers of mixed metaphors revel at every possibility of inventing new interpretations of surreal elements in cult works of fiction or cinematography. The late Polish film director, Andrzej Wajda, had been endlessly mauled by critics to explain the allegorical meanings behind his repeated use of images of a white horse in some of his films, notably in “Ashes and Diamonds”. The public found it inconceivable that under Communist censorship any self-respecting Polish artist could do it not for political but simply for artistic reasons, and constructed near-conspiracy theories. One of them claimed  that the stallion symbolised Josef Pilsudski himself – Poland’s prewar leader and the nemesis of Tukhachevsky’s Red Army expedition against resurgent Poles in 1920. Some historical accounts maintain that the victorious Battle of Warsaw in the summer of 1920 saved not only Poland but the rest of Europe from the curse of Communism.

Soon after Andrey Kurkov wrote his “Death and the Penguin” (1996), literary anatomists and political commentators alike endowed the bird with supernatural meanings rather than powers. The prevalent one was that the penguin symbolised the collective nature of the mentality of the Soviet people who are unable to act on their own but must follow other penguins. As much as I would like to synthesise my own journey of the last 25 years into a metaphor of an iconic mammal such as the horse or the lion, I am afraid I invariably end up being reduced back into Kurkov’s pathetic bird. I have to explain why.

I grew up under Communism in Poland. My only brother went to study physics in the Soviet Union at Moscow’s prestigious MEI thanks to my parents’ fur shop, which was state-owned, but functioned after hours like a proper private enterprise.  I had defied my parents’ wishes and refused to study law even though they had said I would not have to turn up at the entrance exams to get in. Instead, I went to read English which I saw as the only discipline not tainted by the Communist system. My brother joined the Communist Students’ Union in Moscow, while I refused to join its equivalent at home, and pierced my left ear to wear a stud in a bold gesture of political defiance. On his return home, my brother joined the Polish United Workers’ Party, and I went to work for the Catholic University of Lublin – the only private and independent university in the Warsaw Pact countries. I did not even wait for Communism to collapse, but emigrated to live in England in 1989. In other words, and to use yet another bird metaphor for our brotherly disunion, “One flew east, and one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. But hang on a second – how does a penguin fit into Ken Kesey’s cuckoo nest? Mixed metaphors again?

I was so proud of having flown over “the cuckoo’s nest” to London that all my energies went into proving that I was the bird of the same feather as all the British fowl there.  After about 15 years of trying hard – and repeatedly failing – I ended up working in Kurkov’s Ukraine, and later in Central Asia, spreading the gospel of democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech in the former Soviet empire. It was in Khujand in 2009 that my unflinching belief in my Western plumage got shattered, or rather unceremoniously plucked out. I had been invited together with an English member of our film crew as a guest of honour to a traditional Tajik wedding. After several endless toasts, the bride’s family insisted that we, the foreigners, produce one as well – most probably for the sake of amusement at the inability of Westerners to compete with the local panache and verbosity. My poor friend got dragged out into the open and managed to produce a few more-or-less coherent lines to enthusiastic, if somewhat ironic applause, but when my turn came, one of the guests shouted: “Leave him alone, he is the man of the East!”  At the time, I felt deeply insulted and profoundly humiliated. Somebody dared to call me a penguin.

Having flown both to the West and the East, I returned to the country of Wajda’s white horse after more than 20 years spent overseas with unshaken conviction that Poland’s transformation from the cuckoo’s nest into a fully-fledged European democracy was complete and irreversible. I closed my eyes at obvious cases of corruption and nepotism disguised by the plumage of EU bureaucratic legitimacy, gave tolerant nods to prefixed deals construed as transparent tenders, and shut my ears to self-congratulatory bigotry. I managed to ignore xenophobic rants of self-righteous zealots, and the medieval ignorance of Catholic Church-inspired nationalists until my Russian-speaking wife was spat on in the street and cursed by a respectable-looking elderly lady in a medium-sized urban community south of Warsaw. The incident took place roughly at the time of media reports of systematic mistreatment and even instances of torture in detention centres for refugees from Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia, whom Poland had taken in as a gesture of democratic solidarity with nations and peoples suffering from Russian oppression. We did not quite fit in with the local flock: it was time for the two of us, penguins, to turn into migratory birds again.

The English have an old saying that people of similar character tend to stick together – again using a bird metaphor: “Birds of a feather flock together”. I was full of hope that my second British homecoming will be met by the same familiar flock I remembered from my earlier years in the UK. But clearly, we are living in the age of climate change. I had lived on and off in Britain for more than a quarter of a century, but I had never had a sense it was a land of indigenous penguin populations. Not the right climate, one should think. The enforcement of anti-racist legislation over several decades of aggressive government non-discriminatory and equal opportunities policies worked well to the point of pushing racism and xenophobia well underground and channeling them into insidious and hidden forms such as bullying at school or harassment at work. Generally, it seemed to work well to protect the black and Asian communities from the most obvious and blatant forms of discrimination, but had an ugly side-effect: it exposed other white non-Anglo Saxon minorities – mainly more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, to compensatory forms of racism. It was not based on skin colour, and much less on ethnicity, but on values. On the one hand, those people are white in the eyes of the British, but on the other, they are pitch black: in other words, we are all perfect penguins.

bfirst_hnhThe Brexit referendum had an almost instant chilling effect on the British climate, which seems to have reverted to the safety of its colonial l’air du temps: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. Even though Great Britain is separated from Europe by a narrow strip of sea water, in terms of values it turned out to be an ocean. For more attentive observers of British popular sentiment of the last few years, with the rise of UKIP and such phenomena as Britain First, the outcome of the Brexit vote was predictable. While the Poles or Hungarians could be accused of developing only a thin European skin since joining the EU more than a decade ago – the skin that easily comes off at first abrasion or friction, the British became proud of shedding their EU epidermis of their own free will.

But we need to think seriously, and not in mixed metaphors, about what this moulting process spear-herded by the Penguin in leather trousers reveals and tells us what the future holds in stock for us. Which is the white side, and which is the black one. What is more dangerous for the human race as a whole: the helplessness of millions of Kurkov’s penguins languishing in the post-Soviet unreformed space, or the emergence of a single victorious rogue Penguin on the other side of the Atlantic, not unlike the character played by Danny Devito in Batman Returns, who is shortly due to take over in Gotham City? The Penguin, whose winning strategy was based on accusing his competitor of being also essentially a rogue penguin, but of inferior quality. She lost, even though more Kurkov’s penguins had voted for her overall. Gotham City in the Batman movie was saved in the end from the rogue Penguin just in time for Christmas, but in our case, unlike in the film, what happens, if the Superhero fails to materialise and save us this Christmas?

IMG_5357 (2).JPGI decided to put the Penguin in the title of my piece after reading reports of the mysterious drowning of seven Humboldt penguins in a zoo in Calgary, Alberta earlier this month. Initial investigation suggested that these natural swimmers and divers must have been in the state of panic or intense stress not to come up to the surface in time but drown instead. We can only speculate whether they had found out who had won the election across the border, and committed group suicide out of a sense of shame that one rogue Penguin may have ruined their reputation for generations to come. Or perhaps they had realised with shock that America and Britain were also populated by tens of millions of indigenous penguins of the Andrey Kurkov species, who had for decades been made to believe that they were eagles and albatrosses. Remembering back the Tajik wedding now, I feel proud to have been called the man of the East. I am still a perfect penguin, but I suspect that all these past years, I may have worn my coat back to front, thinking that the white was black, and the black was white. This is my little own Epiphany this year and it miraculously takes place before Christmas, not after. Happy New Year!