London's Editorial Independence Is In The Dock

It has been a long time coming, but the debate the UK media needs to have is upon us, and it has arrived through the furore over The Evening Standard selling brands a "money can't buy" opportunity to sponsor a new section.

There is, of course, the irony of a newspaper selling "money can't buy" opportunities for, erm, money to deal with first. But then there are some very serious allegations, which it must be made clear, The Evening Standarddenies. 

The deal appears to be a little murky. On the face of it, it's an opportunity to sponsor a new London 2020 section that will focus on issues of the day from next week. The main offering seems fairly standard, if you'll pardon the pun. Brands can sponsor sections and the microsite that goes with the series and be a part of the social engagement that accompanies the campaign. 

The difficulty comes in some very murky sales pattern that has accompanied the push to grab six sponsors, at half a million pounds each and three million in total.

There is talk of the campaign generating positive news coverage and commentary. This is where the line between advertorial and editorial is being potentially transgressed. The assumption is that participating brands are being told that the stories they take part in within the sponsored content will lead to positive headlines elsewhere. The crucial question is whether this is a suggestion, a simple sales tactic to seal the deal, or more than that. Is it a throwaway line or a promise?

To be honest, it's hard to know. And all eyes will now be on The Evening Standard to see whether it suddenly gives Google and Uber positive coverage beyond the sponsored section. It's clear that both companies could certainly do with it -- particularly Uber, which is fighting to overturn a decision from TfL not to renew its licence to operate in the capital.

My gut instinct is that the paper is being unfairly picked on because it is edited by the former Chancellor, which makes it a soft target for anyone wanting to expose a former Tory selling favours. The truth is that these advertorial deals are done all the time.

However, there is sufficient murkiness around the campaign, which means all eyes are now going to be see whether the sponsoring brands appear to receive preferential treatment. The section they are sponsoring will no doubt make it clear that the content has been paid for. The question is going to be whether commentators are suddenly taking a soft line on Google and Uber, plus the four as-yet-unnamed additional sponsors. 

If The Evening Standard suddenly begins featuring news stories and commentaries that support Uber in its quest to renew its London licence or for Google to be given less of a hard time over extremist content and its tax arrangements, then we will all know what was intended when the brands were offered "money can't buy" positive news and favourable comment. If the stories are gushing, we will know it wasn't a hint, nor a prediction of what other news sources would take from the sponsored content, but rather a very dangerous promise that threatens the integrity of the newspaper. 

The Guardian is already suggesting that the former Chancellor is too compromised by his business dealings to be an impartial editor of a paper that  distributes 900,000 free copies every day across London. All eyes will now be on the title's editorial to find out if the paper is right or if too much has been read in to the sales patter accompanying an advertorial sales pitch. 

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