This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 1 2017.
Sri Lankans are justifiably proud of their politicians’ corruption and nepotism. However, I have had spirited debates with some Sri Lankans who think such things only exist in Sri Lanka. I have argued that western politicians are even more corrupt but are usually more subtle about it.
The shock announcement on March 17 by Evgeny Lebedev, (dubbed “two beards” by satirical magazine Private Eye) proprietor of the London Evening Standard that George Osborne was to become editor of the paper in May drew attention to many unsavoury features of British politics. Osborne, who was sacked as Chancellor of the Exchequer when Theresa May became prime minister, blithely announced that he would continue to sit as a member of parliament for the Tatton constituency in Cheshire.
His salary at the Standard has not been disclosed. He will not be starving anyway. Since he ceased to be a minister he has declared almost £1 million in speaking fees in the Parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests. He has declined to answer those who ask whether he will give up his lucrative little jobs to avoid any suggestion of conflicts of interest. Osborne is paid £650,000 a year for one day’s work a week for fund manager BlackRock. He has earned £800,000 for 15 speaking engagements in the last year, collects a £120,000 a year stipend from a US thinktank and has a book deal on top of his £75,000 MP’s salary.
Private Eye has on its cover a Standard employee saying: “There’s no conflict of interest – he’s not interested in journalism”. Seriously though, as a member of the privy council, Osborne has privileged access to confidential briefings, conflicting with his obligation as a supposed journalist to publish information in the public interest. The Standard has a good reputation for its city coverage. Will that continue with a new editor who has been paid vast sums by the world’s largest asset manager. BlackRock is a major player in the pensions industry and has benefited from the policies of Osborne the chancellor. The money-laundering bank HSBC, in which BlackRock has more than £2 billion worth of shares, also benefitted from Osborne’s policies and received critical coverage from the Standard. Will this continue with Osborne as editor? The new editor will need to recuse himself from every financial story his paper covers.
Revolving Doors, Revolting People
The Eye has been running a long campaign to expose the inadequacies of Acoba (advisory committee on business appointments) the body which is supposed to regulate the revolving door between government and business. Acoba is supposed to assess any private paid roles taken by former ministers and civil servants in fields they previously regulated in government. The committee seems to approve every move it assesses. Osborne showed his contempt for the body by taking up his new job without waiting for a finding. He has previous on this because he did not consult Acoba before taking a post with Northern Powerhouse.
Real journalists, particularly those working at the Standard, feel Osborne’s contempt for them. One said that Osborne’s confidence that he could edit the paper and be an MP “just shows the contempt he has for the newspaper, that he thinks being an editor is a part-time job, that’s the real scandal”. Osborne’s constituents might not be happy at the knowledge that he thinks representing them is a part-time job. Carla Flynn, editor of the Knutsford Guardian, Osborne’s constituency local paper, described the appointment as a “huge shock”. “Since he lost his position as chancellor, constituents thought they would be seeing more of their MP but this hasn’t been the case, and we’ve received an increasing number of letters questioning George’s commitment to Tatton.”
Senior hacks all over the UK are expressing their annoyance at Osborne’s appointment. Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian thought it was ironic that this appointment should be made at a time of controversy over “fake news”. “George will pen a few words, front a few Lebedev cocktail parties and pocket a few hundred thousand pounds, burying the remains of a once glowing political career. The perfect PR symbol of our times: a fake newspaper editor”.
Marina Hyde was caustic. “Primarily, it is a thrill to see Osborne finally get his break in journalism, over two decades after failing to get on the Times graduate trainee scheme. Bless him for keeping on plugging away – it’s so easy to get discouraged by a setback like that.” She noted that Lebedev had said, “I am proud to have an editor of such substance.”
She asked What substance? Is it crystal meth?” There is footage of Osborne on YouTube which shows him in the House of Commons in a very peculiar state which looks like coming down after some drug induced experience.
Former prostitute and ex-drug user Natalie Rowe claims that Osborne took cocaine with her in his early 20s, before he became an MP.
Marina Hyde continues: “One of the more questionable pleasures of the age has been to watch people who used to be journalists cocking up the country, and people who used to cock up the country becoming journalists. What fluidity there is between these two pursuits. In the former category, we have leave figureheads Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who got their start in journalism. In the latter category, we may now place newspaper editor George Osborne.” Another revolving door!
Austerity Is Not for Everyone
One of the reasons Osborne irritates people so much is that he has led a privileged and sybaritic existence while imposing austerity measures on the rest of the population. He was born in Paddington, London, and christened as Gideon Oliver Osborne. His father Sir Peter Osborne co-founded the firm of fabric and wallpaper designers Osborne & Little. He was educated at independent schools: Norland Place School, Colet Court and St Paul’s School and Magdalen College, Oxford.
At Oxford, Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club, noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising of restaurants and students’ rooms. Its ostentatious display of wealth attracts controversy, since many ex-members have moved up to high political posts, most notably former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Tom Driberg described a typical Bullingdon outing: “Such a profusion of glass I never saw until the height of the Blitz. On such nights, any undergraduate who was believed to have ‘artistic’ talents was an automatic target.”
Having failed in his ambition to become a journalist, Osborne took advantage of personal contacts to get a job at the Conservative Research Department in 1994 and rose to high office without too much effort. Like many politicians, he has never done a proper job in his life and has no clue how normal people live, normal people who bear the brunt of his policies. David Cameron denied that his long friendship with Osborne was anything to do with him getting the job of chancellor: “He stayed in my shadow cabinet not because he is a friend, not because we are godfathers to each other’s children but because he is the right person to do the job. I know and he knows that if that was not the case he would not be there.”
Osborne’s school and university contemporary, financier Nathaniel Rothschild, said in October 2008 that Osborne had tried to solicit a £50,000 donation from the Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, which would have been a violation of the law against political donations by foreign citizens. In 2009 and 2012 Osborne was criticised for his expense claims, in particular for the claims for mortgage interest payments on his Cheshire properties.
What of the Future?
When Theresa May announced that there would be a general election on June 8, Osborne announced that he would cease to be an MP. Few doubt that he still has ambitions to be prime minister and the editorship will be a useful tool. Osborne’s first edition will do little to quell rumours that he wants to use London’s freesheet as a platform for his own political agenda. Some see it as a vehicle for future political ambitions, should the Brexit strategy being pursued by the prime minister who sacked him as chancellor go wrong.