First Thoughts: Saudi propaganda and the Independent, slow news and why the FT doesn’t need to diversify

Soon after Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power last year, Evgeny Lebedev sold a 30 per cent stake of the Independent to a Saudi investor. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Before the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as the country’s de facto ruler was warmly welcomed by London’s movers and shakers. A dashing 33-year-old, known, like America’s most “progressive” presidents (FDR, JFK, LBJ) by his initials, he was a social and, more importantly, economic liberal. He allowed women to drive, sing in public and attend football matches. He promised to offer shares in the oil company Saudi Aramco on Western stock markets. He hadn’t got round to abolishing torture, public executions or arbitrary imprisonment but, at last, everybody could take Saudi money without fear of criticism.

Perhaps that explains why, soon after MBS’s rise to supreme power last year, Evgeny Lebedev, the Independent’s majority owner, sold a 30 per cent stake to Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi investor. This ended a Fleet Street tradition whereby, whenever a newspaper was sold to an unsuitable character such as Robert Maxwell or Richard Desmond, journalists (before taking the new owner’s shilling) would cry: “At least he’s not a Saudi oil sheikh!”

Cheerleading for MBS

When MBS visited London in March, the Independent, now an online-only news publication, was among the cheerleaders. An article by Iain Millership, “managing director of an oil pipe supply”, hailed the “breathtaking” pace of his reforms. Saudi Arabia was having its own Arab Spring, but “this latest revolution is top-down”. Western sceptics were like “those Kremlinologists who… could not accept that glasnost was for real”. Equally starstruck was another Lebedev-owned publication, the London Evening Standard, edited by the former Tory chancellor George Osborne. A profile of MBS praised his “Western, progressive instincts” that made him “determined to break” Saudi Arabia’s “repressive mould”. Better still, “well-paid, cushy state-sector jobs are no longer being made available”. Which sounds rather similar to what happened under Osborne’s chancellorship.

Not so independent

Happily, the reporting of the Independent’s distinguished Middle East correspondents – long its biggest strength – is unaffected. A rich Saudi is not so foolish as to trash a brand he’s just invested in, but he wants to make full use of it. This year, the Independent announced “a major international expansion deal” with the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which has strong ties to the Saudi government. It will launch websites in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian. Journalists fear they will be propaganda vehicles for the Saudi regime and the Independent’s editorial control will be minimal. Two people approached to oversee the Persian website – aimed at readers in Saudi Arabia’s enemy Iran – turned down the job.

Moreover, I detect soft-pedalling in the Independent’s comments on MBS’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s murder. This is a moment, an editorial concludes, for the “reforming crown prince to bring about… greater openness than he has delivered so far”. Saudi glasnost hasn’t turned out quite as advertised.

Clegg up

Like Nick Clegg, I didn’t join the march for a second EU referendum. Instead, I stayed in Loughton, Essex, for a quiet and unfashionable lunch with my family. But at least I didn’t announce that I was hopping it to California for a £1m-a-year job with Facebook. Single-handedly, Clegg has probably sunk the chances of reversing the Brexit vote. His behaviour conforms exactly to the Brexiteers’ stereotype of prominent Remainers: grasping, out-of-touch, elite metropolitans, interested only in personal enrichment. “I’m joining Facebook to help tech be a force for good,” was the headline over Clegg’s Guardian article. He must know his role at Facebook, as vice-president, global affairs and communications, will be to help tech seem a force for good.

Uncommon touch

Another elite metropolitan on the move is Lawrence Summers, US Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. He isn’t changing his job – currently Harvard University professor – but has been on a two-week trip “across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains”. He shared his discoveries with Financial Times readers. America is a very large country; you often can’t get a mobile phone signal; most people in bars and restaurants don’t watch TV news and don’t care who’s nominated to the Supreme Court; and you see more notices about church suppers and local fairs than about political events. Readers called for the FT to find columnists from more diverse backgrounds. Surprisingly, the editor Lionel Barber tweeted his agreement.

Please, no. One reads the FT to learn how the mainly white, male and affluent elites of North America and Europe see the world. In the FT they truly reveal themselves, believing that the only readers will be other white, male and affluent folk. The last thing the paper needs is more diversity.

Daily grind

The former BBC News director James Harding is launching a website and app that will eschew breaking news under the motto “slow down, wise up”. It promises “not the news as it happens, but when it’s ready”.

Harding edited the Times from 2007 to 2012 but his plans recall the Times of long ago. Shortly after Harold Evans became editor in 1981, the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in mid-afternoon London time. Evans (as he recalls in his memoirs) ordered special features for the next morning’s edition. The late Roger Berthoud, then a Times writer, asked: “Why have we got to do it for today? Why don’t we think about this and write for tomorrow’s paper?” Told that this was “supposed to be a daily paper”, Berthoud replied: “No, it’s the Times.

Perhaps, in his honour, Harding should call his venture “the Berthoud”, not, as he off-puttingly proposes, Tortoise Media.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash