Editorial/Blog


The UK has not always been blessed in its newspaper proprietors: we’ve had the Canadian sent to jail in America for defrauding his shareholders, the British national who bought a famous title with the proceeds of porn, the Czech-born naturalised Briton who ran off with a pension fund, the Australian-turned-American who paid out millions of pounds in compensation for bad behaviour by his media companies, the sometime KGB officer who brought in Saudi money to bail out his business, the British tax exiles who lost control of their paper after racking up a bank debt of £1.2billion.

Given these antecedents – and having paused to inquire why none of these figures attracted much investigation from the many journalists who worked for them – we might wonder why anyone should mind if Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, succeeds in his ambition to own The Daily Telegraph. Indeed, if we were the sheikh and his family, we might wonder why we are the ones getting the hard time.

He has a chance to become a newspaper baron thanks to those last figures in our list of shame, the Barclay family. They borrowed to buy The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator in 2004 and borrowed more to support it and their other businesses. We thought they were fabulously wealthy. It turns out they were short of ready money. Despairing of repayment, Lloyds Bank took control of the titles and put them up for sale.

The bank expected to sell the Telegraph group, recoup half the debt and write off the rest. Imagine its joy when the Barclays resolved to find an alternative lender and repay the lot. The problem is the £1.2billion is now owed to RedBird IMI, a joint venture involving the private equity business RedBird Capital and Abu Dhabi’s International Media Investments. Half the debt is meant to convert to equity, giving title of the Telegraph group to RedBird and its former NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker, with Abu Dhabi as a “passive investor”.

The capital of the United Arab Emirates has never known the joy of a free press, nor believed in the full and frank disclosure that western media purport to practise. Telling truth to power has yet to catch on in the Arab world. One or two of the journalists who went to work for the Sheikh’s start-up title The National now say there was always an understanding that some topics were off limits. How unlike our own dear country, where we claim to care who owns our newspapers and have regulations designed to protect press freedom, plurality and competition. The culture secretary Lucy Frazer is waiting for Ofcom to give a view on whether RedBird IMI taking over the Telegraph group could breach them.

For now, as a result, the Barclay family is owner again, but operating under a government order that prevents it doing anything with the titles. They are, we might say, in office but not in power. Their own staff are reporting the various negotiations with some cynicism. They bandy about the Barclay name with a sauciness that would once have been unthinkable.

We are normally suspicious of journalists who take up moral positions, but we are impressed by the boldness with which writers from The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator have used those titles to condemn Middle Eastern ownership. Not all in the trade agree. Indeed, one prominent former editor, George Osborne – a man who once found work experience on The Sunday Telegraph – has done much to encourage the proposed deal, suggesting we should have one of those boards of the great and the good that is designed to guarantee editorial independence. Mr Osborne is unusual in being a journalist who truly understands finance. He is a partner at the investment bank that is working for RedBird.

But the deal isn’t done and it doesn’t have to happen. The titles are not going bust. This is not a rescue job. If the government turns against the Abu Dhabi deal, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator can go back on the market, for there is no shortage of buyers. So come on, secretary of state; step in, prime minister. Tell us that the principle of a free press matters. Show us a national newspaper is too important a thing to be sold off to a country that does not believe in journalism.
KF

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