George Osborne’s Evening Standard Denies Claim It Sold Positive News Coverage to Google, Uber

George Osborne
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty

George Osborne’s London Evening Standard has been accused of selling its editorial independence for £3 million in exchange for “money can’t buy” news coverage of narratives and campaigns backed by big brands including Google and Uber.

openDemocracy claims that representatives from several corporations met with Evening Standard executives to discuss a buy into the newspaper’s “London 2020” scheme.

Brands would, it is alleged, be partnered with “themed projects” including what openDemocracy described as “politicised initiatives on clean air, plastic pollution, schools and workplace tech and a project designed to address London’s housing crisis”.

A screenshot of the presentation given to executives was shared by openDemocracy, one point reading: “Money-can’t-buy: we expect every campaign to generate numerous news stories, comment pieces and high-profile backers.”

Another point on the presentation read: “Monthly Print Sections: Eight pages of in-depth material, exclusive research analysed, ideas and solutions around each big issue. Themed to individual projects.”

The campaign is set to launch June 5th and is to run for two years with staff journalists to write “unbranded news stories”, according to openDemocracy.

The independent media platform alleges that Uber has paid £500,000 for the lead role in the “clean air project” pushing “cleaner transport” and promoting turning London “electric” by 2020, and Google took up the lead for the work tech and schools projects. Four other corporations have also bought into “London 2020” for half a million each, it is claimed.

Starbucks was allegedly offered the “plastic pollution project” to lobby against using plastics, but Starbucks is said to have declined as it has its own initiative for reducing plastic usage and waste.

An unnamed Starbucks senior executive allegedly told openDemocracy: “Buying positive news coverage is PR death…something you might do in Saudi Arabia, but not here. This wasn’t right for us. We do engage in advertorial [a hybrid mix of advertising and editorial] but that’s just marketing. We don’t need to buy our reputation.”

A Starbucks spokesman told the media industry news website Press Gazette that: “We met with ESI [Evening Standard and The Independent] and opted not to move forward with the project.”

The free London newspaper has a circulation of 900,000 in just the two miles of London – twice that of The Times across the whole United Kingdom. It is owned two-thirds by Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev (who also owns The Independent) and by the Daily Mail and General Trust. It is edited by former Chancellor of the Exchequer and architect of the Remain campaign’s ‘Project Fear’, George Osborne.

openDemocracy suggests that the Osborne-run Standard would lose its editorial independence through the scheme, with former Independent politics editor James Cusick writing:

By the established industry definition of “news” – which makes or breaks a newspaper’s integrity and its editor’s reputation – a commercial pay-off is supposed to play no part.

The editorial independence of the widely-circulated London newspaper was up for scrutiny last year when the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council urged the Evening Standard to declare in articles about Uber that Osborne has a £650,000 a year job with fund manager BlackRock, which has a stake in the taxi app firm worth £500 million.

In reaction to these claims, The Guardian published an opinion piece which, though it did not dwell on the veracity of the accusations, said that Osborne was “too compromised” to edit the Standard, Grant Feller writing: “We cannot know for sure what is real journalism and what, because of his many jobs, has been compromised.”

Deputy Labour Party leader Tom Watson tweeted: “This is cash for column inches and amounts to a corporate fake news factory on a grand scale. If even vaguely true, George Osborne’s position as a credible editor is under serious question today.”

ESI Media has hit back at the allegations, calling them “baseless”, “wrong”, and “inaccurate”.

Standard spokesman told openDemocracy: “We would never offer ‘positive news’ coverage and ‘favourable’ comment as part of a commercial deal. The Evening Standard’s editorial integrity and independence is always at the heart of everything we do and is beyond question. That’s why we have such a big and loyal readership.

“No commercial agreement would ever include ‘favourable’ news coverage. Like all British newspapers, the Evening Standard has valued commercial partners and works with them on specific campaigns for the benefit of our readers. Indeed, editorial independence is and remains guaranteed in the contracts we sign.”

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