Belfast Telegraph

Jim McDowell: 'I've news for you George, being editor of a newspaper is about a lot more than just having fun'

Former Chancellor George Osborne caused consternation when he described his appointment to the £220,000-a-year Editorship of the London Evening Standard as "fun". That wasn't the first word beginning with 'f' that sprang to the mind of two-time Belfast newspaper editor Jim McDowell

Appointing George Osborne editor of the London Evening Standard is akin to appointing Attila the Hun as editor of the Christian Herald. Both notions are bizarre almost beyond belief. The main difference being, of course, that Attila the Hun was a winner. Big time.

And George Osborne is a loser. Bigger time.

He backed the Remain campaign to the hilt.

And lost. Ignominiously.

And then he was sacked by Theresa May. Also ignominiously.

So, from being Chancellor of the Exchequer, he's now pursuing a chequered career holding down some six jobs - including hanging on as an MP.

And as far as taking on the editorship of the Evening Standard is concerned, he has, in this veteran hack's humble opinion, donned the mantle of what we in Ulster call a chancer ... rather than a blamed and shamed ex-Chancellor.

Plus, he was quoted in the Sunday papers as saying he had gone for the job because he thought it might be "fun".

Well, Mr Osborne, as the former Editor of two newspapers - the old Sunday News and the northern edition of the Sunday World - published in Belfast ... Have I Got News For You.

I certainly had some fun in the jobs. But there is a string of other "f" words - other than the obvious - which fit the job description pertaining to any editor's chair.

Just some of them are frustrating, feisty, fraught, frenetic, fierce, and having to stand up and fight your corner. And that's only with some members of staff in your own newsroom at times.

Mr Osborne will quickly discover that even the most combustible parliamentary debates are like a kindergarten compared to a newsroom on a hot news-breaking night.

Plus, there's another "f" word: fatigue.

It's a 24/7 job editing any newspaper: you sleep, eat and - yes - drink it at times.

And sometimes you don't do any of those three, because of threats to yourself or members of your staff, or a court case looming, or the spectre of a crunch meeting with the bean-counters - the accountants - over budgets the next day.

So, it is totally beyond me how George "Mr Greedy" Osborne has swung the job with Evening Standard owner, billionaire Evgeny Lebedev, where he's only going to "fill the chair" four mornings a week - to allow him to fulfil his MP's double-jobbing role in the afternoons - for a mere pittance of 220 grand a year.

Perhaps another Russian oligarch staging another "right lark", as native Londoners might say?

However, there is a moral and professional requisite in a real journalist's Code of Conduct that requires her or him to remain "impartial and objective" at all times. I know there are exceptions in wartime: like during the dirty little sectarian war which we endured here for over 30 years, when journalists were morally bound to take sides for the common good and expose the gangsters and paramilitaries and terrorists for what they were. And still are.

But how a working politician with a constituency over 100 miles away from Westminster and who is deeply partisan to one party, the Conservatives, can be impartial or objective in running a newspaper is like saying Donald Trump should be editor of the Washington Post.

(Although, hold on a minute: a stranger thing has happened - he WAS elected to the White House, after all.)

Plus, there is the not inconsiderable matter of professional pedigree allied to newspaper nous, and a nose for news.

Most newspaper editors come up through the ranks: from cub reporter to senior journalist to departmental heads to become, eventually, editor.

In that way, they will have gained the respect and loyalty of their colleagues: a totally necessary alliance for any editor's role.

A newspaper is, after all, a living organism: it reflects all of human life. It is of the people, and by the people.

It tells their stories. Of tragedy, triumph, tears of sorrow, and tear-tugging romance.

It reflects, in short, the pulse beat of the people.

And, believe me, as an editor I've been put on my back on that pavement, both physically and metaphorically, more than a couple of times.

Because the job triggers moments of pride and joy. And hours of panic and trepidation.

And none more so than when deadline looms: there's a big, but perhaps legally dicey, story ready to run and the staff gathered in your office look you straight in the eye and tell you - "It's your call, boss ..."

Joy when the paper breaks a big story: like Sammy Wilson running about without clothes on in the Cotswolds. Something for which Sammy, to his credit, has forgiven me. I think. At least, he still talks to me. And it didn't hurt his political progress.

Then, he was a mere Belfast councillor and DUP Press officer.

Now he's an MP. (And who knows, a la Osborne, Sammy for Editor of the Irish News next?)

Aye, there's pride. Like when the paper is picking up gongs at the Press awards.

Or like when a very clever sports editor, the late, gracious and great George Ace, accedes to the demand of a new editor in the News Letter that he should lead the back page on a Monday morning with the story and main picture being the Oxford v Cambridge boat race.

The boul' George got a then cub sports reporter - me - to sift out a picture "of that wee fella who sits at the back of the winning boat pulling the bits of string then gets thrown into the river by his team-mates".

George ran the story as requested, with that picture smack dab in the middle of the back page, with the headline over three tiers in Bodini bold 96pt. capital letters:




Perfectly pitched.

Perfectly accurate.

Pity was, the paper never made the streets. The proprietor, also now sadly deceased, found out what was happening as the paper ran off the presses.

He ordered it pulped and a new back page subbed and printed.

But never mind Armageddon. Oarmageddon broke out in the paper's then Donegall Street office next day.

I only wish George Osborne, if not George Ace, could recreate "fun" like that. But I doubt it.

Gongs and gaffes and good stories spark the moments of pride.

Then there are the hours of pitfalls, and potential pitfalls.

When a story goes wrong.

When a source can't be stood up.

Or when hurt or distress is caused, however unintentionally or unwittingly.

One of the worst for me was when we, in the Sunday World, published a front page picture of a man hanging from a bridge. I spent a week apologising, both in public - on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio - and in private, to almost 30 families who had lost loved ones through taking their own lives, for a crass misjudgement and a spur-of-the-moment, deadline-busting mistake, which will never be repeated.

I went and conveyed my apology, sincerely, to the man's mother in her home, too.

It was an emotionally wringing week, which left me with bubbles of sweat on my bald head and emotional barbed wire being pulled through my very being.

My last meeting was with that beautiful group of benevolent and caring folk, The Samaritans.

At the end of it, a very kind lady asked me into her office for a cup of tea.

She could see I was wrecked, physically and emotionally.

And as we supped from our cups, she compassionately queried: "Jim, do you think you could do with some counselling yourself?"

Circumstances like that counter, surely, George Osborne's vaunted and vain notion that being an editor, of any newspaper, is all about "fun".

In essence, his appointment as editor of a newspaper, any newspaper, reminds me of what Billy Connolly once said of Max Boyce.

"Welsh, and trying to be funny, Max," Connolly told him. "The impossible (expletive) dream."

That may be rude and a bit crude, but that's exactly how I, and many other bona fide journalists, feel about a politician - any politician - being appointed a newspaper editor.

Especially when the politician concerned is George Osborne.

Belfast Telegraph

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