The idea of a foreign state taking control of a national newspaper seems far-fetched. A plot line in a dystopian satire of modern Britain, perhaps. And yet it might happen. At the time of writing, we are still waiting to learn whether a bid largely funded by the vice-president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to acquire the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator magazine will go through.
Over the past quarter century swathes of our economy have fallen into foreign hands. Many of us probably shrug whenever a major British manufacturer is bought by a company from abroad. Don’t we live in a global market? All the same, the prospective acquisition of the Telegraph by RedBird IMI, in a venture backed by the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, marks a new departure.
Lloyds Banking Group took control of the Telegraph in June, after the Barclay family had failed to repay a £1.1bn debt. An auction was set in motion. But on 21 November this was suspended until 4 December, as Lloyds tries to conclude a deal with RedBird IMI. Such an arrangement suits the Barclays. Lloyds clearly wants its money now.
It’s true that Sheikh Mansour owns Manchester City Football Club, and the world hasn’t caved in. It’s also true that foreign-born media tycoons, from Lord Beaverbrook to Rupert Murdoch, to Conrad Black and Evgeny Lebedev, have controlled numerous British newspapers. But no foreign-based potentate has ever bought one. When the potentate represents an autocratic state, alarm is fully justified.
There can be no doubt over the illiberal attitude of the UAE towards the media. The country’s official media legislation includes the following injunction: “The person of the President of the Republic or the rulers of the Emirates may not be criticised.”
I doubt Sheikh Mansour would interfere much in the Telegraph titles if Redbird IMI acquired them. (RedBird IMI insists its joint venture with Sheikh Mansour would respect the papers’ independence.) Nonetheless, a foreign state would have effective control of them. Who can say what might happen?
This was a point made by Charles Moore, a former editor of both the Daily Telegraph and Spectator, in a recent Telegraph column, which I’m told was met with widespread approval – from its editor, Chris Evans, to the rank-and-file. Moore inveighed against the “nationalisation” of the paper. He ended: “After more than 40 years’ friendly acquaintance with the readers of all our titles, I feel quite confident in predicting that they would not forgive any government which let them go.”
Moore is a figure in the Tory firmament, admittedly closer to Boris Johnson than to Rishi Sunak, but not to be ignored. He was gently threatening the government. It should expect, if it let his old newspaper slip into Sheikh Mansour’s and RedBird IMI’s hands, a Tory revolt. Sunak should note that once Moore has a bee in his bonnet he doesn’t relent. Beneath the High Tory veneer lurks a journalistic street fighter.
What will the government do? On the one hand, it faces Moore, plus the editor of the Daily Telegraph and most journalists on the newspaper, with much of Fleet Street offering supporting fire. Also in this company are the frustrated bidders for the Telegraph who were left high and dry by the Mansour/RedBird IMI bid. These include the Daily Mail and General Trust and Paul Marshall, the hedge fund magnate cum backer of the UnHerd website.
On the other hand lie pragmatism – and money. The UAE is a huge investor in the UK and, despite its appalling human rights record, is cosseted by the government.
Unsurprisingly, the UAE’s interests are stoutly defended by the Foreign Office. Mandarins reportedly watered down the language of the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, who said she was “minded” to examine the proposed deal. (A key adviser to the UAE/RedBird IMI bid is Simon Fraser, a former head of the Foreign Office, who now works for the lobbying firm Flint Global.) Frazer can either refer the bid to Ofcom under a Public Interest Intervention Notice, or, more dramatically, it could be vetoed by the government under the National Security and Investment Act 2021.
There is a lively division of opinion in Whitehall. Many Tory MPs are suspicious of the bid. So, seemingly, are Frazer and her department. The Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who worked for a short time as digital editor of the Spectator, is also said to be of their persuasion. She’s a useful ally.
Opposed are the Foreign Office and the money men. Typical of them is Dominic Johnson, the Minister for Investment in Badenoch’s department, who told Politico that critics of the bid shouldn’t get “sentimental about some of our so-called treasured assets”. Johnson wouldn’t have stuck his neck out unless he were certain that some in government share his view. Still, William Hague, who is close to the Prime Minister, has chided Johnson in his Times column.
Where does Rishi Sunak stand? Is he the globalist apostle who is happy to welcome Middle Eastern autocrats into the newsroom of a Conservative newspaper? Or will he side with Charles Moore and his ilk in defending a precious British institution from encroachment by a foreign regime with values very different from our own? This tension – between global markets and the sanctity of British institutions – has bubbled below the surface in the Tory party for a generation. It could be about to burst into the open in a most dramatic way.
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now