Os­borne must de­cide how to serve his coun­try

Jour­nal­ism does not mix with jobs in pol­i­tics and the City of Lon­don

Financial Times Middle East - - Letters -

The UK is renowned for its flex­i­ble labour mar­ket. No one has taken greater ad­van­tage of it than Ge­orge Os­borne. Along­side his jobs as the Con­ser­va­tive MP for Tat­ton in Cheshire, the for­mer chan­cel­lor is a highly paid ad­viser to Black­Rock, the world’s largest as­set man­ager. And now he has been ap­pointed ed­i­tor of the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard news­pa­per (he fills his idle hours writ­ing a book, chair­ing the North­ern Pow­er­house Part­ner­ship think-tank, and ap­pear­ing on the cor­po­rate speak­ing cir­cuit ).

There is noth­ing wrong with Mr Os­borne, one of his gen­er­a­tion’s most am­bi­tious and suc­cess­ful politi­cians, seek­ing new hori­zons. He reached high of­fice at a young age — he was 38 when he ar­rived at the Trea­sury — be­fore find­ing him­self out of sorts with his party’s lead­er­ship six years later. Edit­ing might, in fact, be a good way to pro­ceed. He could make the Stan­dard a for­mi­da­ble op­po­si­tion force to Theresa May’s govern­ment. His so­cially lib­eral and eco­nom­i­cally con­ser­va­tive out­look is sadly miss­ing from British pol­i­tics at present.

Pol­i­tics and jour­nal­ism have been mixed be­fore. Richard Crossman, for ex­am­ple, edited the New States­man while serv­ing as a Labour MP in the 1970s. Boris John­son, now for­eign sec­re­tary, was ed­i­tor of The Spec­ta­tor while a Con­ser­va­tive MP. But both are weekly jour­nals of opin­ion with ex­plicit po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. The Stan­dard is a gen­eral in­ter­est news or­gan­i­sa­tion that prints al­most a mil­lion copies ev­ery day.

Mr Os­borne has been crit­i­cised for be­lit­tling the jobs of be­ing an MP and an ed­i­tor. But whether his mul­ti­task­ing is ill-ad­vised — or merely makes the rest of us look un­pro­duc­tive — is not the point. The is­sue is con­flicts of in­ter­est, and here both his role in par­lia­men­tand his work in the City raise se­ri­ous ques­tions. The Stan­dard re­ports on fi­nance and UK pol­i­tics ev­ery day, and ev­ery day there would be mul­ti­ple sto­ries from which Mr Os­borne would have to re­cuse him­self as con­flicted — whether they be about fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion or a scan­dal in par­lia­ment. Mr Os­borne can­not serve as an ef­fec­tive and eth­i­cal ed­i­tor while do­ing ei­ther one of his other jobs, let alone both.

It may once have been ac­cept­able to com­bine a ca­reer in pol­i­tics and the news me­dia. Bren­dan Bracken was chair­man of this news­pa­per’s pre­de­ces­sor, the Fi­nan­cial News, while he served in par­lia­ment and as one of Sir Win­ston Churchill’s wartime min­is­ters. But ex­pec­ta­tions have changed. The pub­lic ex­pects both MPs and ed­i­tors to be more pro­fes­sional and trans­par­ent­than ever. This is as it should be.

Mr Os­borne’s rest­less am­bi­tion will raise the ques­tion of whether MPs should be al­lowed to have sec­ond jobs at all. It would be a shame if the an­swer came back in the neg­a­tive sim­ply be­cause Mr Os­borne’s par­tic­u­lar choice of a job in me­dia is so awk­ward. This would re­sult in a House of Com­mons that lacked its cur­rent breadth of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Con­tin­u­ing to serve in par­lia­ment while also ad­vis­ing Black­Rock does not present sim­i­lar prob­lems. So long as the na­ture of his City role is fully dis­closed, Mr Os­borne’s con­stituents can de­cide whether he can bal­ance their in­ter­ests and Black­Rock’s, given that the lat­ter makes a much larger con­tri­bu­tion to Mr Os­borne’s per­sonal ex­che­quer.

A port­fo­lio ca­reer is no bad thing. Nei­ther are politi­cians with con­nec­tions to busi­ness. But a lead­er­ship role at one of the coun­try’s largest news or­gan­i­sa­tions is a step too far. Mr Os­borne wants to stay in pub­lic life. He has to pick the plat­form. He can­not have it all.

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