Tory MPs are used to poring over the pages of the Telegraph titles for evidence of whose political fortunes are up or down in the party’s papers of choice. Now, however, senior Conservatives are more worried about the increasingly fraught battle for the publications’ ownership than with what appears on their pages.
There is growing backbench unease over an Abu Dhabi-backed bid that appears to be the leading contender to seize the newspapers and the weekly Spectator.
And this weekend the grand figure of Lord (Charles) Moore entered the fray. In an urgent plea issued on the radio and in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph itself, Moore, who has edited all three of the British titles now on sale, argued that a media purchase of such significance by a Gulf state would be dangerous.
“The Telegraph and the Spectator are great British institutions. They should not be controlled by a foreign power,” he wrote. Moore added that the deal would in effect give control to Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, which is very different from the simple sale of a commercial asset to an individual owner.
Among those to share Moore’s concerns is Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader. “I just think it would be the wrong move,” he told the Observer this weekend. “I would just be very concerned to see one of the papers of record in the UK come under the control of somebody in the Middle East. It just seems bizarre to me. I would expect the secretary of state to call it in to have it properly reviewed. It’s a detrimental step.”
But in the run-up to Thursday’s Cop28 climate change summit in Dubai – like Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Rishi Sunak’s government clearly sees greater financial links with the UAE as an aim, rather than a risk. So tomorrow the prime minister is to host financiers from Abu Dhabi for a global investment summit at Hampton Court Palace.
The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, along with the Spectator, chaired by Andrew Neil, have been up for sale since Lloyds Banking Group seized the titles from Sir Frederick Barclay and his family in lieu of £1.15bn of unpaid debts.
A delayed auction of the newspapers, which began last month, saw several bidders step up, including a consortium led by hedge fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, who is a shareholder in GB News; the owner of the Daily Mail, Viscount Rothermere; and the regional publisher National World. But the Abu Dhabi-backed RedBird IMI is offering to take the titles from Lloyds in a deal repaying the Barclay family’s debt.
The potential sale also appears to have split the government. There are suggestions that the Foreign Office finessed a letter from the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, to the Abu Dhabi-backed bid, in which she expressed her intention to have the bid examined by Ofcom, the media regulator.
But Jeff Zucker, the former CNN boss heading the RedBird IMI bid, has been angered by the threatened delay. Yesterday he accused rival bidders of “slinging mud” at his offer.
He suggested that some opponents of the deal were people who had “tried to approach us before to see if we would work with them on this bid. So let’s just be clear about that. We were fine in the eyes of our competitors before we were trying to do this on our own.”
Speaking to the Financial Times yesterday, Zucker also pledged to set up an advisory board to protect the independence of the newspapers from UAE influence. “I’ve spent 35 years running or supervising news organisations and there’s nothing I understand more than editorial independence,” he added.
RedBird IMI is largely funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the vice-president of the United Arab Emirates and owner of Manchester City football club.
Baroness (Patience) Wheatcroft, a former editor of both the Sunday Telegraph and of the Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, dismissed concerns about the potential new owners. “People are being a bit pious about it, quite frankly,” she told the Observer. “We do have media plurality in this country, up to a point. But so many proprietors make their views quite evident in their coverage that I don’t think we can pretend that our newspapers are unbiased.”
Wheatcroft conceded that an arrangement like the one to limit Murdoch’s control of the Wall Street Journal could work. “He never interfered at all with editorial decisions when I was there, although I believe he did with the Sun all the time.”
If a formal investigation into the sale is set up by the department for culture, it is likely to take several months to resolve because of complex questions about how to ensure editorial independence. Lloyds is thought to be hoping a sale to clear the outstanding debt can go through before a general election is called next year. But the auction process, organised by Goldman Sachs, only officially launched in mid-October.
Muddying matters further is the involvement of Sir Simon Fraser, who headed the Foreign Office for five years from 2010, and who is now advising RedBird IMI.
It is unlikely that the tussle over the future ownership of the Telegraph will be enough to make loyal readers drop their toast and marmalade as they study the morning crossword.
But outside its own readership the idea of a major British newspaper group soon belonging to a consortium backed by Abu Dhabi is disturbing politicians from all parties, not to mention human rights campaigners.
The UAE has a poor reputation for freedom of speech and international pressure groups have repeatedly urged it to end the detention of activists, academics and lawyers.