It’s worth stressing that the Evening Standard, the only newspaper and website that can be arguably be described as serving the capital as a whole, is not, and never has been, completely full of crap.
Even under the Boris Johnson-grovelling editorship of Veronica Wadley, which won it the nickname the Evening Boris – I claim the coinage, by the way – it had some proper reporters and polished columnists alongside its house cranks and propagandists. Even when colluding with the odious 2016 mayoral election campaign of Zac Goldsmith under Sarah Sands – who, astonishingly, was then recruited by Radio 4’s fading flagship Today programme – there were things in it worth reading.
Even now, led, loosely-speaking, by George Osborne, you can find good writing and items of interest in the Standard. When its owner Evgeny Lebedev gave the former Tory chancellor the job it was a bad decision, but not all bad. Alas, as the process for selecting the Tory candidate to challenge Sadiq Khan in 2020 gets to its business end, the Standard is showing every sign that its approach to mayoral elections has not changed for the better.
The other day the paper formally declared what had been obvious for some time – that it considers Shaun Bailey to be the best of the three contenders to carry the Tory banner into the next battle for City Hall. In this, I fear they are mistaken. But what matters much more is that its recent coverage of Bailey and of Mayor Khan strongly suggests that, once again, the Standard has little if any intention of providing Londoners with fair, thorough, even-handed coverage of a mayoral election campaign.
A string of puff pieces for Bailey and a hostile supposed “audit” of Khan’s progress so far – some of which has already been demolished elsewhere – indicate which way the wind is blowing. Khan has undoubtedly detected it, actually defining the Standard as part of the opposition to his re-election.
Exactly why the Evening Standard, with its monopoly position on the capital’s news stands, thinks it does itself any favours by taking a Tory-cheerleader approach to mayoral politics – especially in a city that has leaned more and more towards Labour in recent years – remains at least to some degree a mystery. Doesn’t it bother those in charge that such an attitude has hurt the paper in the past? Or must we regretfully fall in line with those terrible old cynics who regard the Standard as little more than an extension of Lebedev’s high-end social life?
The whole point of the Tories picking their candidate early is to give him or her a full 18 months to become known to the London public and so improve their chance of at least making a decent dent in what looks like a very strong position for Khan, despite a slide in his popularity. It’s not a bad idea and it is right that the Labour Mayor is properly tested and alternative policy approaches widely aired.
Sadly, it also looks set to mean months on end of tendentious, partisan output from the Standard. History suggests that Osborne will enjoy that – as a famously “political” chancellor, he relished deploying sly, socially divisive tactics in order to win support for his spending cuts agenda which – as Khan won’t hesitate to keep pointing out – continues to directly affect many Londoners. Bailey too has form for cheap and nasty campaign ploys, as those who followed his failed attempt to become MP for Hammersmith in 2010 will recall.
The 2016 mayoral election contest brought shame on London Tories and did the Standard no credit either. Can it really be that the party and the paper are to collaborate in plumbing the depths again? Londoners have already had the Evening Boris. Must we now endure the Daily Bailey?