Shortly after midday on Monday, an email arrived in the inbox of staff at the Daily Telegraph from their editor. “Over the weekend a number of you have asked me questions about the future ownership of the Telegraph,” Chris Evans wrote. “You’ve been asking me how we can be confident that editorial independence would be protected. At the moment I know no more than you will have read.”
After a turbulent week at one the UK’s biggest and most influential newspapers, the staff of the broadsheet are not the only ones to be concerned.
Speculation about potential buyers had been rife since the Telegraph and its stablemate the Spectator were put up for sale after the failure of its previous owners the Barclay family to repay debts of £1.15bn to Lloyds Banking Group.
Journalists, media watchers and Conservative MPs seemed blindsided this week when RedBird IMI, an investment consortium led by the former CNN president Jeff Zucker and financially backed by the Manchester City owner and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, moved to take control in return for repaying the Barclays’ debts.
It sparked fears that the influence of Gulf states, which has pervaded football’s Premier League, was spreading to the UK’s media landscape, with one source inside the Telegraph saying: “We’ve had sportswashing, are we now seeing newswashing?”
Amnesty International said the deal would have serious implications for press freedom in the UK, while the Telegraph published a leader stressing that its editorial independence must be guaranteed.
By Tuesday, the auction of the publications, which had kicked off at the end of October, had been paused, and a day later the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, heeded a letter sent by Tory MPs that said “influence over a quality national newspaper being passed to a foreign ruler at any time should raise concerns [and] must be investigated”.
Frazer announced that she was minded to ask Ofcom, the media watchdog, to examine the proposed deal on public interest grounds, while the regulator said it was “ready to provide our assessment to government if required”.
It is the right thing to do, said the former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis, as RedBird IMI has stated its intention to convert the loan into equity “at an early opportunity”.
“Here you have a major national asset with huge influence, particularly one side of the political spectrum, essentially bought by the [vice-]president of Abu Dhabi,” said Davis.
He is concerned that the newspaper is being bought not just for financial reasons. “That, for me, triggers a requirement to do a fit and proper person test,” he said.
RedBird IMI has said it is “entirely committed to maintaining the existing editorial team of the Telegraph and Spectator publications, and believe[s] that editorial independence for these titles is essential to protecting their reputation and credibility”.
Alex DeGroote, a media analyst, said the fear of foreign influence may have been be overstated. The Telegraph Media Group, which reported a 4% increase in turnover for 2022 and has claimed it has 1 million subscribers, would be “a very small asset” for Abu Dhabi.
“I would be doubtful that the Abu Dhabi fund has any real explicit agenda, in the scheme of things,” he said.
For those newly worried about the influx of foreign money into UK media, that ship has already sailed, said Alan Rusbridger, the editor of Prospect magazine and former editor-in-chief of the Guardian.
He pointed out that despite the sound and fury coming from Tory MPs and rival bidders, it was unlikely the deal would be stopped. Unlike bids from the GB News co-owner Paul Marshall and the Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, there is no issue around competition.
That is unlikely to stop attempts to halt the bid, he added. “There will be a lot of lobbying from people with their own interests in trying to block this deal,” he said. “None of this is going to be very edifying.”