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In An Era Of Fake News, Editors Can't Serve Two Masters

6 June, 2018

A few months ago I was thrown off a jury. Not because I am an argumentative pain in the backside, which I am. But because I knew one of the barristers. A group of us was being assessed for jury suitability and he and I both immediately made it clear that our friendship represented a serious conflict of interest. Though I would have attempted to be scrupulously honest and unbiased, it would have been impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this episode in the context of journalism and in particular the role of multi-talented and multi-employed George Osborne who edits the Evening Standard, a newspaper I used to work for. He is certainly the least experienced yet most highly-paid high-profile editor in Britain, possibly the world, but I wonder if he is also the most compromised.

The salary he earns from editing London’s free newspaper is supplemented with at least eight other roles. Most recently, he was appointed chair of a group of high-profile business leaders who will oversee Exor, the holding company of the Agnelli family, which owns Juventus football club, Fiat, Ferrari and myriad other businesses, including The Economist magazine.

He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a dean’s fellow at Stanford business school, chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and an adviser to BlackRock, the US asset manager, for which he is paid an eye-watering £650,000 a year for working one day a week.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne’s tireless work ethic will ensure he fulfils all of his obligations – with the exception of one. Editor. Because like me at jury selection, he cannot possibly say that he is not conflicted by personal interest. His honesty, capacity for unbiased decision-making, ability to judge stories without fear or favour is highly compromised by his close – and remunerated – association with some of the world’s biggest companies and most powerful business leaders.

It’s crucial that readers trust what they are reading. Osborne’s latest wheeze is reportedly to offer special clients favourable reporting in return for paid advertising. It’s a partnership so fraught with potential mistrust and conflict of interest that Starbucks has flatly rejected the offer – because readers will not know what is real reporting and what has been paid for. Although the Evening Standard is at pains to point out that any content created by this project will be clearly flagged as commercial.

But the same dilemma exists for Osborne and the reporting of business stories. We cannot know for sure what is real journalism and what, because of his many jobs, has been paid for.

Journalists have always displayed a bias in story selection that has not been made clear to readers. We’ve all contributed to an article that we knew had personal significance to our boss or proprietor. There are numerous columnists – especially on the sports pages – who fail to declare a personal interest in the individuals they’re writing about (and whose autobiographies they have sometimes helped to write). And most writers of travel features, for instance, have created a piece of journalism based on the fact that they’ve been handed a luxury freebie.

So honesty and transparency have always been issues, yet never to the same degree as Editor Osborne. His over-enthusiasm in the Evening Standard towards companies such as Uber – a significant BlackRock investment – is just one of the most notable examples. Yet BlackRock has assets worth more than $2bn in pretty much every single major business you can think of.

So how can the Editor of a newspaper disassociate himself from the fair reporting of a company or individual who is in some way associated with those who pay him extraordinarily generous annual stipends? When editorial conference focuses on the day’s reporting of business news, does the Editor of the Evening Standard recuse himself from discussions about BlackRock and Exor clients, or does he helpfully proffer his expertise and inside knowledge? Can he honestly say that his judgement is not compromised?

As I said earlier, I’m not concerned about Osborne’s physical and intellectual capacity to carry out his roles. This is about ethics. Readers need to know that what they’re consuming is honest and unbiased and if there is potential doubt about the content, they should be told.

So when a restaurant critic is friends with the chef or owner of a swanky new joint they – nearly always – own up. When I worked on the Daily Mail I remember being admonished for not revealing in a piece about the internet property company Zoopla that it was part-owned by the same people who owned the newspaper. Richard Desmond, who owned the Daily Express, sometimes asked us to plug one of the new ventures he was helping to back and would always provide a quote somewhere in the piece making clear his link.

Sometimes clarity and transparency is lacking. One editor incessantly forced us to plug the clients of a PR company that one of his children worked for, for no other reason than that family connection. That kind of murky deal still goes on but not right at the top. An Editor must be seen to be above it all, his or her judgement cannot be clouded by unspoken financial commitments or interests.

Of course they can still show bias – Osborne’s almost daily vendetta against Theresa May is evidence of that. It’s petty, nasty and over-the-top but not against the spirit of editorship. Everyone has favourites they shower with praise and enemies they seek to destroy.

As an industry, journalism has never been more vital to society. Yet because of the scourge of fake news it is also one of the least trusted. Osborne’s editorship can only dent that level of trust further. There are many talented journalists who work on the Evening Standard and the paper’s columnists are some of the best-connected writers around.

But they will never again be able to write about individuals who are conflicted by multiple interests without knowing, deep-down, that their boss is one of the most conflicted of all.

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