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  1. Diary
14 February 2024

Meeting Vladimir Putin

Also this week: The art of the political interview, and what’s next for the Telegraph takeover.

By Lionel Barber

Vladimir Putin is the master of destabilisation. The exasperated sigh, the smirk, the icy stare. Russia’s president uses every trick in the KGB manual to throw an interviewer off guard.

As the last Western journalist to interview Russia’s strongman, I was interested to see how Tucker Carlson would fare in his Kremlin encounter, which took place on 6 February. Putin floored poor Tucker in the first minute, chiding him for playing talk-show host rather than engaging in serious conversation. The coiffed former Fox News anchor never recovered.

He left unchallenged Putin’s one-sided history lesson (“Ukraine is an artificial state”, “Poland collaborated with the Nazis”). He failed to tackle Russia’s war crimes. He accepted at face value Putin’s litany of grievances and conspiracy theories. Carlson’s sole win was raising the detention of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow correspondent being held on bogus espionage charges. Overall, I award him a C-minus grade: not good enough for someone with his eye on a run for US president after Donald Trump.

“Golden” opportunity missed

David Frost had a great tip for interviewers. Prepare to move beyond the chosen subject and accompany the interviewee into unfamiliar territory. “You never want to duck answering their answer,” said Frostie, a master of the genre.

Top of my list of missed openings in Moscow: Putin’s mysterious reference to “the Golden Billionaires”, a conspiracy theory that claims Western elites are intent on seizing control of the world’s natural resources. Such fantasies are far more interesting than fictional Russian peace overtures.

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End of the Piers show?

Interviewers are making news these days. Piers Morgan enticed a gullible Rishi Sunak into taking a £1,000 bet on his Rwanda refugee policy. Scalp secured, Morgan said he was abandoning Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV, where his viewing audience is tiny, and moving full-time to YouTube, where he has 2.4 million subscribers.

Morgan had a three-year contract worth a reported £50m. Maybe he jumped before he was pushed. Now he’s adopting the same model as Tucker, who has his own streaming platform and a show on X.

How long is Murdoch committed to TalkTV? My bet is on industry-wide consolidation featuring upstart GB News. There’s a parallel with satellite broadcasting in the UK 30 years ago. On that occasion, however, Murdoch came out on top with BSkyB.

Bidders lost in the desert

The campaign to stop the sale of the Telegraph Media Group to the Abu Dhabi-backed consortium RedBird IMI is a Harvard Business School case study. Charles Moore, who has edited the group’s three main titles, neatly framed the argument: a Great British institution is under threat of nationalisation by a foreign country (the UAE) that does not enjoy press freedom.

The ferocity of the opposition has taken Wall Street boutique bank RedBird and its front man, the ex-CNN head Jeff Zucker, by surprise. They face months of scrutiny from competition regulators, at the fag end of a Conservative government. RedBird IMI says it aims to create a global conservative brand, a mirror image of the liberal Guardian’s digital strategy. It will invest heavily. Zucker insists he will respect editorial independence. He’s ready to appoint an oversight board headed by a respectable Tory (William Hague was top of the wish list but then came out against the bid in his Times column).

As a last resort, the Arabs might be willing to sell down their majority stake or convert it into non-voting stock. I doubt that will pass muster. Everyone knows owning the Telegraph has little to do with economics; it’s all about respectability and a hotline to the government.

If the government blocks the bid, RedBird IMI will have to relinquish control and make a distressed sale. Up to £600m could be at risk, assuming the titles fetch £600m. That’s chump change in Abu Dhabi, but the loss of face will come at a far steeper cost.

The smart money

Who will emerge as the Telegraph owner? Will Lewis, the ex-Daily Telegraph editor, failed to persuade Jeff Bezos to enter the auction. The Daily Mail faces competition obstacles. My money is on Paul Marshall, the co-owner of GB News and a coming force in conservative media.

Despite its flagrant disregard for due impartiality, GB News has been treated with kid gloves by Ofcom, the media regulator. It features elected politicians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg acting as TV hosts. On 12 February a special guest appeared in the pin-striped fogey’s slot, answering voters’ questions in a “People’s Forum”.

You guessed it: Rishi Sunak.

Lionel Barber was the editor of the Financial Times from 2005 to 2020

[See also: There were no winners in Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland