The Evening Standard editor uses the 2019 lecture to put forward a big idea to ensure the future of journalism.
Delivering this year’s Hugh Cudlipp lecture, George Osborne talked about why his time in politics makes him well-placed to run the London Evening Standard: “In politics and in journalism, you have both to listen to the public, and you also have to lead them.”
“I believe good journalism is about informing and entertaining,” he said. “Listening to your readers, yes, but also being part of the conversation that shapes their view of the world.”
Although his appointment as editor was seen as “outrageous” by politicians and journalists alike, Osborne says he’s “loved every minute” of the last two years. He believes the Standard is “something very special”, describing it as “an influential paper, read by those in politics and business and arts because they want to know what’s happening next”.
Talking about the importance of newspapers, Osborne said: “[Newspapers] play a key role in leading and structuring the public conversation – a role that these days it has become fashionable to underestimate.”
He described newspapers’ “big and influential readerships” and used recent investigations such as the Windrush scandal and the misdeeds of Philip Green to highlight their campaigning role and influence on other media, such as the BBC.
For him, readers are turning to trusted newsbrands, whether in print or online, “to help them interpret the news – to get some explanation and attitude, investigation and analysis”.
But, as an industry, we need to do more to ensure a sustainable future, he told delegates: “We need to find long-term sources of commercial income… it has been a challenging time… but there is a glimmer of hope. It’s called fake news. Or rather the scandal about fake news. What encourages me is that people care.”
“In Britain I believe people and businesses will more and more turn to established, reliable brands,” he said. “And if they do that, then there is money to be made. Money to pay for journalism”.
He also used the lecture to raise issues around regulation and competition. “The monopolistic practices that have seen a tiny number of companies scoop the lion’s share of online advertising revenue… the tech mergers that were allowed to happen because no one really understood these markets… how much longer can they be exempt from the legal responsibility that holds me accountable?”
Osborne believes online regulation is coming in a big way – “the [tech] companies know it and are gearing up to shape it”, he said. “Now they’ve built their new shiny castles, they’ve worked out that it’s time to build the moats.”
The former Chancellor was clear that “we don’t want to end competition in the media industry” – after all, it’s competition that has driven so much innovation – but we need to “create fair competition”.
For him, this comes in the form of a big but simple idea: “Let people own their data. Give power to the consumer not the producer”. By this he means, ensure consumers aren’t just using a tick box, which benefits those few big online players who make use of such valuable data, but instead gives people control over their own data. It would become an asset to the individual – data they could even be paid for, a ‘data dividend’ as it were.
“If consumers owned their data, rather than one or two big producers, then we could all compete for their custom, and their data would follow,” he said.
Osborne concluded that this would lead to “a more competitive, level playing field and dramatically change the economics of the online world”.