The Hugh Cudlipp lecture 2019 was held at Regent’s, with George Osborne, editor of the London Evening Standard, discussing ‘The Politics of Newspapers’.
Osborne spoke of the ethical challenges journalists and politicians face, namely:
‘Do you give the country what it says it wants or what you think it needs?’
‘Do you provide the reader with what they say they want, or what you think they should read?’
‘In politics and journalism, you have both to listen to the public, and you also have to lead them.’
Osborne experienced this challenge from both standpoints, believing his role as editor gives the opportunity to recreate the Evening Standard as ‘a mass market paper with a readership much larger than any broadsheet; but at the same time an influential paper.’
Osborne posed the question ‘do newspapers matter? Do they have power anymore in the age of Facebook and Twitter and fake news?’
He highlighted ‘the feeling that politicians in Britain had become too close to the media, were too powerful and too unaccountable.’
Throughout his career, Osborne tried to influence the public, and having newspapers on side was an important factor.
‘Did that involve lots of dinners and lunches with editors and proprietors? Yes. They had something we needed: direct access to the public. Did that make them powerful? Yes.
‘Newspapers don’t determine the outcome of elections or referendums. But it would be a great mistake to think, as a result, they don’t matter to our politics.’
Political parties are spending more on digital budgets but Osborne argued, ‘the terms of daily conversation are more often than not set by Fleet Street.’
To answer his first question; ‘Yes, newspapers are powerful. They help host the national conversation but they’re not the only ones who decide its outcome. Often they follow, rather than lead.’
Answering ‘are newspapers going to survive?’ Osborne touched on the rise of online media. Some British media offered online content for free, hoping digital advertising would pay for it. However, this was not the case.
In 2009 the Evening Standard became free, quadrupling circulation, bringing with it revenue from advertisers who could reach bigger audiences.
‘If you want quality journalism, someone has to pay for it. Newspapers are businesses not charities.’
For Osborne, there is ‘a glimmer of hope’. Fake news highlights the need for reliable journalism written by trained journalists and legally accountable editors. By giving the power to the consumer through a ‘data dividend’, everybody could compete for their custom, and data would follow.
‘It’s not a magic bullet to the problems facing the newspaper industry, but it would create a more competitive playing field and dramatically change the economics of the online world.’
Osborne closed the lecture by stating ‘there’s something very precious about a free press. People will always want to know what’s going on and we can help them find out. As the people with real ink on our hands, we can listen, but we can also lead.’