West London Tories

The Evening Standard Class

Every Londoner knows the Evening Standard. Stacked outside tube stations and strewn across the floors of carriages, the newspaper is impossible to avoid.

Proof of declining circulation, September 2022.

This was product placement perfected, but times change.

The Evening Standard is facing rising production costs and has had to reduce the size of its newsroom and circulation.

Furthermore, the paper is out of touch with the politics of post-Brexit Britain.

Dating back to 1827, the Evening Standard has survived many rival London papers against all odds. But the London tabloid has little connection to the everyday experience of most ordinary people in its hometown.

It’s a Conservative paper in a Labour city.

Who does it speak for? It’s the newspaper of liberal Tory metroland, but it’s been repackaged to sell us smartphones and holiday deals. The people who pay for it are the companies who advertise with the Evening Standard.

So many of us still pick it up, even though it may annoy us, just because it is a free paper. Not only is it free, the Evening Standard has cornered the market. Its editorial line may not represent us, but it delivers national news through a London lens.

A combination of staying power, oligarchy and a freemium business model helped sustain the paper for over a decade.

But any print publication depending on advertising is living on borrowed time.

Kensington Square Isn’t London

Sharing its one-time Kensington office building with The Independent and the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard epitomises the old press establishment.

But the paper is loyal to a particular section of the status quo.

The West London Tory crew may not be in power in the UK, but it still holds sway at the Evening Standard’s current Finsbury Square address, also home to its sister paper, The Independent.

It might be the last vestige of the Cameron era and a pre-2016 form of liberal conservatism.

The most important editors of the Evening Standard over the last 20 years have all enjoyed connections with the liberal wing of the Conservative Party.

The best known is former Chancellor George Osborne, who imposed austerity.

David Cameron and Osborne were the two great representatives of the Conservative centre ground, and they ascended to the top of the party in 2005. The Cameron-Osborne clique aimed to build on Blair’s socially progressive neoliberalism.

This Tory version of New Labour would prevail until it self-immolated in the Brexit vote of 2016.

The result has left the Evening Standard tied to a middle-class protest party rather than a socially liberal, fiscally conservative bulwark of good management.

Meanwhile, the newspaper’s readership remains solidly white-collar and metropolitan, with 65% of its audience being classed as ABC1 (down from 86% in 2012).

This means ‘upper middle class’ in the NRS grade system.

Not that the Evening Standard is particularly rarefied. It regularly includes adverts for brands like Tesco because it tries to reach far beyond its more narrow target audience.

Nevertheless, its lifestyle pages carry articles on such topics as glamping.

Yes, the Evening Standard didn’t have to pander to readers because of its advertising base. However, this is also because the freemium model allowed it to reach more readers with the same editorial strategy. But this is no longer the case.

Almost a million people used to read the Evening Standard every day. Yet the newspaper has had to roll back its circulation from nearly 800,000 in 2020 to just over 300,000 today.

It can no longer compete with Metro, a far less substantial free newspaper, which boasts a circulation of 950,000 (down from 1.4 million in 2020). But this is just distribution.

Most Evening Standard readers are men with an average age of 41 and a household income of £56,000 a year, according to Hurst Media.

This is a narrow range of readers, unrepresentative of London.

Friends of Boris

The Evening Standard has a longstanding love affair with one Tory in particular: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (‘Al’ to family, ‘Boris’ to you and I). However, not all the paper’s editors are fans of Johnson.

Right-wing historian Max Hastings was the Evening Standard’s editor from 1996 to 2002. He has repeatedly criticised Johnson in public, having worked with him.

Hastings edited The Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1995. He hired a young Boris Johnson after he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote (one of the few mortal sins in journalism).

Later, Hastings warned against a Prime Minister Johnson because his libidinal energies would get the better of him. He had previously advised Boris to “lock up your willy”, but Johnson did not listen.

“I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet,” Hastings wrote in The Guardian in 2012.

He reiterated the case against Johnson in 2019 when his former employee fulfilled his boyhood dream of becoming “world king”.

Veronica Wadley succeeded Hastings as editor. She was the first woman to become editor of the Evening Standard. The Wadley era lasted from 2002 to 2009, spanning the years of New Labour’s decline, the financial crisis and a resurgent Conservative Party.

During this time, Wadley swung the paper’s editorial line behind Boris Johnson in the 2008 mayoral election. At the time, Associated Newspapers owned the Standard, but the company would soon sell up.

Associated Newspapers owned the Evening Standard until 2009, when former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev snapped it up for £1.

It’s now the plaything of his son Evgeny Lebedev, whom Prime Minister Johnson later made Lord of Siberia.

This was the end of the Wadley era. She stepped down to make way for Geordie Greig, who went to Eton at the same time as Johnson. Greig would run the London newspaper for just three years.

Wadley went on to serve as senior adviser to Johnson in his 2012 re-election campaign. Later, Johnson awarded Wadley with a peerage, and she became Baroness Fleet in 2020.

Another friend of Johnson, Sarah Sands, took over from Greig in 2012 and edited the newspaper until 2017. She is still the longest-serving editor of the Evening Standard since Wadley stepped down.

In the foul year of Brexit, the newspaper told its readers to vote Remain, but it would stay loyal to the Conservative Party despite its trajectory.

Six years later, the same newspaper backed Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak.

Despite the fall of the Notting Hill set, the Evening Standard has continued to back Tory politicians adopting a very un-metropolitan style. The newspaper was comfortable backing Zac Goldsmith’s awful campaign against Sadiq Khan in 2016.

This seemed out-of-character for a paper used to making concessions to multicultural Britain.

It makes sense once you remember that Goldsmith is a part of the London super-rich and a liberal Tory despite his campaign strategy.

Sands left the newspaper to lead BBC4’s Today programme in 2017, and George Osborne, of all people, became editor.

Sands would face accusations of bias over her connections to right-wing Brexiteers during her time at the BBC.

It didn’t help when Sands was photographed having lunch with Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage and Liam Fox.

This turned many heads. Some people began to ask questions about her impartiality.

Sands left the BBC in 2020 after job cuts were announced. So she joined the Berkeley Group, a FTSE 100 property firm, where Veronica Wadley was also serving as a director.

Falling Out

At the Evening Standard, George Osborne had taken the freemium model even further by offering advertorials to major brands such as Uber and Google in a £3 million deal. But he wouldn’t stick around for long.

In fact, Osborne decided to leave in 2020. His successor Emily Sheffield, younger sister of Samantha Cameron, served only for a year and still writes for the newspaper (often cheering on Rishi Sunak).

Sheffield handed over the reins to acting editor Charlotte Ross, who later moved on to a job at The Telegraph in 2022 (she handed over to another temporary editor).

At the same time, the paper has been running on losses for over five years.

This trend may continue for a sixth or even seventh year. These losses forced the paper to cut its newsroom by 40% in 2020.

It’s unclear if the Evening Standard will be able to break this cycle since advertising revenue is no longer reliable and the cost of paper continues to rise.

Metro has had to make cutbacks, while City A.M. has just been put up for sale. The era of the freemium model is coming to an end.

Despite this challenge, the Evening Standard has new editorial leadership.

Former GQ editor Dylan Jones was brought in as an editorial consultant in 2023 and became editor-in-chief at the end of May.

He is the first permanent editor in two years. Of course, whether he lasts in his role remains to be seen, given the paper’s recent history.

Once again, someone with strong establishment ties is steering the ship.

Jones once paid David Cameron £10,000 for interviews as part of a mutually flattering book, Cameron on Cameron (2008).

He had previously commissioned Boris Johnson to write about cars.

Johnson racked up £4,000 in parking tickets while serving as GQ’s motoring correspondent.

Not that this experience stopped Jones from raising funds for the doomed London Garden Bridge project (for which we can all thank Boris). This boondoggle cost £53 million, and it wasn’t even built.

Jones is the perfect continuity candidate for the newspaper.

After all, this is the newspaper that promoted austerity, opposed Brexit, supported Liz Truss and now pretends it never did.

The Evening Standard may try to straddle the different factions of the Conservative Party, but it will always be ensnared by the contradictions of Tory misrule.

Even still, it’s a reliable barometer of public opinion in Notting Hill townhouses.

Photograph courtesy of Duncan Cumming. Published under a Creative Commons license.