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Spare us the sanctimony on fit and proper media owners

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By all means block the deal but spare us the sanctimony. A campaign is on to prevent Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, buying a major piece of the British media. That the titles in question, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator, are about the most important publications to the Conservative party is quickening anxiety.

For all the shifts in the media landscape, newspaper groups, and the rightwing press particularly, still carry an outsize weight in setting the political agenda. So it is not hard to see why the ownership of the Tory house journals — previously home to Boris Johnson’s scratchings — matters to Conservatives, who are making their case with high moral tone. They have a devastatingly simple argument. Sheikh Mansour is a leader of a foreign nation and one that does not believe in freedom of the press.

The UAE is a valued ally and investor in the UK. But it is not a good place to be a journalist. In the words of Reporters Without Borders (RSF): “As soon as they emit the slightest criticism, journalists and bloggers find themselves in the crosshairs of the UAE’s authorities, who are masters of online surveillance.” They can face prison for “insulting the state or spreading false information”. In RSF’s rankings of press freedom, the UAE stands 145th out of 180.

While the Spectator is thriving, the Telegraph (where I worked in the 1990s) is not the institution it was. Once a bastion of serious if somewhat crusty journalism, the title now too often descends into shrill populist paranoia and heated anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The would-be buyers are a joint venture of the Sheikh’s IMI and a US private equity firm RedBird Capital. Their supporters argue that IMI is not a UAE state entity — though it comes close — and point to safeguards to protect editorial independence. Redbird will run the titles alone under the vigilant leadership of former CNN president Jeff Zucker. Sheikh Mansour, we are told, will be a passive investor. 

Yet media history shows how little these defences are worth and it is naive to believe coverage would be allowed to be inimical to the UAE’s interests. As other proprietors have shown, you don’t need to interfere directly as long as you appoint an editor whose views align with yours and who is “sensitive” to your interests. The UAE has many welcome UK investments including Manchester City. But a football club cannot help decide the next Tory leader.

So yes, those calling for the UK to block the deal under public interest powers are right. For all the assurances, there is a principle here. A state-related entity from a country with no regard for press freedom at home should not own, even passively, a pillar of the British media. (I should note that the Financial Times is part of an employee-owned Japanese media group.)

But if we are going to have this conversation, let’s spare ourselves the humbug of pretending that existing British media moguls are as hands-off and virtuous as a Disney princess is chaste. Individuals buy newspapers for status or power and invariably use them to advance personal or professional interests. And the roll call of UK press barons is hardly one to shout about.

In 2015, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator resigned, claiming that the Barclay family, the outgoing owners, were suppressing stories about HSBC because it was an important advertiser. He similarly blamed the title’s relative silence over Hong Kong on a fear of upsetting Chinese interests. The Barclays’ predecessor, Conrad Black, was jailed for fraud in the US. He was later pardoned by Donald Trump.

If the Redbird IMI deal is blocked, the beneficiary could be the bid led by Sir Paul Marshall, co-owner of GB News, which gives airtime to race-baiters and conspiracy theorists.

Robert Maxwell, the late owner of the Mirror, stole hundreds of millions from the company’s pension fund. A perennial interferer in his papers, he even rigged a “spot the ball” competition to avoid paying out the £1mn prize.

Lord Evgeny Lebedev, the current co-owner of the Evening Standard, owes his media empire to the money made by his father, a former KGB officer and Russian oligarch, currently on Canada’s sanctions list. Lebedev, a supporter of Boris Johnson in the London mayoral elections, ennobled by the former prime minister, also part-owns the Independent with a Saudi businessman thought to be close to the regime.

And then there is Rupert Murdoch. The tycoon is a genuine newsman who saved the British press from the grip of the print unions. But his political influence is immense and, to many, malign. Aside from that, his stewardship has been replete with scandals. The UK phone-hacking saga, centred on his papers, led to the closure of a title and the jailing of journalists. One of the then editors is now his CEO at News UK. In the US, his Fox News network paid out $787mn to the Dominion voting equipment business for accusing it of being part of a plot to steal the 2020 presidential election, a claim the network knew was untrue.

These then are some of the existing owners. Viewed against them, the damage the sheikh could do is probably limited. And yet the conservative campaigners are probably right. There is an absolute principle worth defending. 

On that basis the deal should probably be blocked. But let’s not delude ourselves about what counts for a fit and proper owner in the UK.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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