Big changes ahead in media under a new government

Big changes ahead in media under a new government

As Labour kicks off a new era, some major media developments are also under way: the sale of the Telegraph, the future of the BBC under a new culture secretary and the departure of two heavyweight political commentators.

Now that the general election is safely out of the way, another battle involving the Conservatives is about to get under way — this time with the media at its centre.

The bidding war for The Daily Telegraph is about to begin later this month and is it too fanciful to suggest that it could turn into a proxy contest for the “soul” of the Conservative party as it tries to pick itself up after last week’s historic defeat?

The future ownership of the Telegraph, and The Spectator, is of importance because that is where the ideas about the future of the 200-year-old party will be forged.

Will the Conservatives take a further lurch to the right to embrace the votes of Nigel Farage and his Reform party, stay where it is now or move back towards the centre and the honourable tradition of one-nation Toryism?

As the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and to a lesser extent The Sun spend most of their time carping at everything that the Labour government does, it is in the pages of the Telegraph and The Spectator that the influential debate could take place, depending on who emerges as the new owner by September.

The conservative spectrum

With the news that Lord Saatchi — he of the famous “Labour Isn’t Working” political slogan — is considering putting together a consortium to bid for the titles, the line-up of potential buyers now covers the conservative political spectrum.

The favourite has long been seen as Sir Paul Marshall, the hedge fund multimillionaire who is co-owner of GB News. Should he win, the paper would at the very least continue to occupy its current robust right-wing stance and possibly move even further to the right to incorporate Reform.

Against such a background, a Saatchi-led consortium would be more likely to take the paper back in the direction of traditional conservatism and, who knows, with former government minister Michael Gove in the editor’s chair?

David Montgomery (and his National World) has made little secret of his desire to expand again into national newspapers. His would be a technocratic, rather than an ideological, approach. After all, he was once happy to run the Daily Mirror.

Should Montgomery win, the main impulse would be about running a profitable media business rather than politics.

The Daily Mail and General Trust, publishers of the Daily Mail, is also expected to be involved, although it is unlikely to be allowed to win control on media concentration grounds.

A sibling for WaPo?

There could, of course, also be a fantasy candidate.

What is known for sure is that last summer Sir William Lewis, former editor of the Telegraph, was energetically trying to put together a consortium to bid for his old employer and expressed optimism that he could raise the money.

Then, out of the blue, Lewis was appointed publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, followed by controversy over inserting assorted Brits at the top of the Post and (disputed) allegations that he has sometimes taken too close an interest in editorial matters.

Lewis has probably got his hands full but, should he still be interested in what is happening at the Telegraph, his proprietor, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, could easily fund a purchase without blinking and could take the paper editorially towards the middle ground.

Such a bid could obviously remain nothing more than a fantasy candidate.

Lisa Nandy’s BBC support

Whoever gets the Telegraph, the matter could end up on the desk of Lisa Nandy, who emerged as the unexpected culture secretary after shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire lost her Bristol Central seat to the Greens. Nandy’s minister of state, Sir Chris Bryant, has long been a campaigner for press reform.

A superficial look at Nandy’s political career would suggest little formal involvement in the media. Remarkably, she has held the shadow portfolios for foreign affairs, levelling up, energy and even international development — but not culture.

However, Nandy has taken a considerable interest over the years in the future of the BBC, funding of the BBC World Service and the contribution of local newspapers to democracy.

And there is an inherited element. Her mother, Luise Nandy, worked at Granada Television and ran What The Papers Say, while her stepfather is the late, great television editor and producer Ray Fitzwalter.

Nandy made it clear in 2020 — when she stood for the Labour leadership contest that Sir Keir Starmer eventually won — that she supported the BBC and its licence fee. She went on to say she liked the “mutualisation” option: having a BBC that is owned by its viewers and listeners.

Her Labour government, according to Nandy, would tax social media companies to create a fund that would help fund investigative journalism and local publications.

Perhaps when she has got her feet fully under the table, she might manage to have a word in the ear of her boss on the creation of such a fund.

All change at newspapers

The election sent many ministers spinning out of parliament, including the last two culture secretaries, Michelle Donelan and Lucy Frazer. One of the latter’s last acts in government was to block an Abu Dhabi consortium trying to take over the Telegraph.

It wasn’t just political big beasts bowing out; a couple of heavyweight newspaper columnists decided time was up for them too.

Matthew Parris departed his weekly Times column in a quiet and dignified way with the simple words: “Joe Biden’s sad story shows why we should quit before we embarrass ourselves so, though I’ll still be writing for The Times, this will be my last Saturday column.”

There was also a Biden link in the decision by The Sun’s long-time political commentator Trevor Kavanagh: his age.

Kavanagh said that, at the age of 81, he had decided to go. “That’s all, folk! After half a lifetime as The Sun’s political editor and columnist, I’m hanging up my quill,” he wrote.

The scourge of Labour warned, however, that he would probably come back to say: “I told you so.”

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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