Gather round for the Telegraph soap opera
A new proposed structure, another Ofcom probe, a change in leadership… the ownership of The Daily Telegraph is a soap opera — and all in an election year.
The ownership of The Daily Telegraph is rapidly turning into a business soap opera, complete with last-minute changes of direction, political interventions, cliffhangers, dramatic resignations and late moves by a Mr Big.
Above all, it looks as if, in an election year, the saga has still got a long way to run.
For those who haven’t been paying detailed attention, there have already been many twists and turns in the plot.
News in brief
First, the Barclay family appeared to have lost the ownership of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator magazine forever when Lloyds Bank took over the publications, after failing to reach agreement on repayments of more than £1bn in debt.
The media world licked its lips at the prospect of that rare entertainment — the auction of distinguished, historic titles.
How much were they worth and who would win? Probably £600m at least, but it was impossible to predict what the auction would throw up if a really rich trophy hunter had swooped.
Then the Barclays played an unexpected get-out-of-jail card by raising the funding to repay Lloyds.
Controversially, the money came from RedBird IMI, an investment vehicle majority-owned by Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates.
The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator owned by government money from Abu Dhabi, a place where concepts of press freedom are little understood?
Cue political pandemonium on the right as the house organ of the Conservative party appeared to be passing under the control of questionable foreigners.
Culture secretary Lucy Frazer had little option but to intervene and ask Ofcom to advise on the public interest implications of the deal, in particular for freedom of expression and plurality of voice in the UK media.
Ofcom was due to submit its recommendations this week until, suspiciously late in the day, the Barclays and RedBird IMI said they were creating a new holding company using an English limited partnership.
The aim, alongside other measures, was to guarantee what the prospective owners had always claimed would be the case: the editorial independence of the titles.
RedBird IMI said the change of structure was intended to clarify that Mansour “will have no management or editorial involvement whatsoever”.
Back to square one, as Frazer asked Ofcom to look again at the proposal and report back by 11 March.
Frazer was not too amused by the latest RedBird IMI manoeuvre. The culture secretary noted that the late information had not been conducive “to the full and proper functioning of the process”.
It was a week in which the chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, Nick Hugh, also left the company with immediate effect and without explanation. Hugh had been in the job for seven years and had been in charge as the Telegraph took its print and digital subscribers to more than 1m.
You would have thought serious investors would have wanted to keep such an experienced executive in place.
Enter Mr Big
The subsequent intervention from “Mr Big” — Andrew Neil, chairman of The Spectator – was even more telling.
Neil promised to resign if the proposed takeover went ahead and said it was absurd for “a dictatorship” to own the magazine. He called for the government to block the takeover — a position shared by a cross-party group of more than 20 parliamentarians.
Numerous Telegraph journalists have also expressed horror at the deal. Former editor Lord Moore said it was little more a statement of fact to say that the Telegraph and The Spectator were great British institutions and “should not be controlled by a foreign power”.
That comment goes to the heart of the matter: would such institutions actually be controlled by Abu Dhabi interests?
They have been insistent that the consortium is run by former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker. Can’t the former boss of an important international news organisation be trusted to honour the editorial independence of the Telegraph and The Spectator?
While it is impossible to prove a negative, there are still real worries surrounding this deal.
There is all the difference in the world between investing in football clubs or race horses and investing in institutions that have played key roles in British democracy.
Why should Mansour want to fund such publications without having any influence over what they do? He is not short of money or less controversial business opportunities.
Why would he want to bring down on his head considerable criticism and inevitably attract presumably unwelcome attention to the limitations of press freedom in Abu Dhabi?
Back to the start
It is possible that Mansour will decide that this game is not worth playing, particularly if it seems the government will ultimately block the deal — the most likely outcome.
If such a thing were to happen, the saga would then rumble on, with the Barclays trying to find less problematic alternative sources of finance.
It is not clear how many would volunteer to step into such a glaring spotlight and by then Lloyds might have simply tired of this soap opera.
Then it really would be back to square one, with a bank left holding a national right-wing newspaper and right-of-centre political weekly in the middle of a general election campaign.
The auction box would have to be opened again and of course the government, Ofcom and the Competition & Markets Authority could all be called into action again — depending on whose money wins the day.
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.