Snoddy: RedBird’s Telegraph deal is destined to fail

Snoddy: RedBird’s Telegraph deal is destined to fail

The scale of opposition could crush the proposal, whatever the regulators ultimately decide.

It may seem like a premature declaration, but I’m predicting that the bid for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator by a consortium ultimately owned by Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will not pass.

How come? After all, initial reports into the deal by communications regulator Ofcom and the Competition & Markets Authority only landed on the desk of culture secretary Lucy Frazer on Monday.

In the normal way of things, it could take months before Frazer takes a decision on whether to open full and lengthy investigations into the deal, under which the RedBird IMI consortium paid off the debts of the Barclay family and took control of the illustrious right-wing publications.

It is not known what the regulators have recommended or even whether they have recommended the same thing.

But it is highly likely that Frazer will opt for a full inquiry because of the mounting cross-party political pressure against the proposal.

Frazer has already made her misgivings about the deal known and prime minister Rishi Sunak has also been clear that the government is exploring the possibility of taking additional powers to block such a deal.

Foreign control

All sorts of assurances have been given about setting up mechanisms to protect editorial independence, complete with an advisory board of journalists to rule on any disputes between the titles and the UAE.

Despite such niceties, the case against the deal boils down to a single argument: that important British publications should not ultimately be controlled by a foreign country — particularly one that, in this case, has very different concepts of press freedom.

Many leading figures in the world of journalism, not least Andrew Neil, publisher of The Spectator, and Lord Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, have attacked the proposal.

More than 100 MPs have already said they will support an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, now in the House of Lords, that would allow the government to block the sale of UK publications to foreign governments.

Political involvement

In fact, last week, Conservative peer Baroness Stowell wrote to Sunak in a letter published in The Telegraph arguing: “Allowing foreign governments to own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation would damage public confidence.”

Stowell plans to push for a vote in the House of Lords on the amendment that could then start the ball rolling in the House of Commons.

This process is greatly helped by the fact that the view from Labour is absolutely the same.

This week, shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire told The Spectator: “My view — and the view of the Labour party — is that foreign governments should not own national newspapers.”

Clearly, members of RedBird are starting to read the runes and there have been reports of talks with other potential bidders in the shape of the Murdoch family and Viscount Rothermere’s DMGT.

Potential new structure

Would a three-way ownership structure, diluting RedBird’s interest, work?

Not any time soon, because after RedBird delayed the regulatory process by making adjustments to the proposed deal, Frazer decided in January that there should be no further “tweaks” to the ownership structure until the process is complete.

The reason it is easy to predict the failure of the RedBird deal is the sheer scale of opposition from the media industry and the political establishment, which will carry out a pincer movement to crush the proposal, whatever the regulators ultimately decide.

It is also likely that any formal investigation could last until after the next general election, when a likely Labour government could perform the coup de grâce on a crippled deal.

Even if the bid were then to be revived with Rupert Murdoch and Viscount Rothermere on board, there could be renewed public-interest tests on whether those two large newspaper groups should be allowed to increase the size of their stakes in the Conservative-leaning British press.

Any new Labour government, which has long railed about the power and influence of the Conservative press barons, would rigorously oppose any increase in that influence.

New bidder

Out of all of this could yet emerge a “clean skin” bidder — someone with no previous involvement in the media sector.

It would clearly have to be someone with very deep pockets and that of course could raise different questions about who is a fit and proper person to own publications that are part of the heritage of this country.

DMGT has given a hint about what the future strategy of The Daily Telegraph should be and, indeed, the opportunity it offers. It would involve turning towards the US and making it more of an international brand.

Last year, before the Barclays were able to buy the publications back from unsought ownership by Lloyds Bank, a similar idea was being put forward by Sir William Lewis, the former chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

Lewis spent last summer trying to raise the money for an independent bid ahead of the planned auction that did not happen.

The editorial strategy set out by the former Financial Times journalist was based on placing greater emphasis on business, finance and markets and, above all, a powerful push into the US.

Then, at the beginning of this year, Lewis took over as CEO and publisher of The Washington Post, owned by the world’s third richest person, Jeff Bezos.

Bezos might not be the only high-tech billionaire interested in owning heritage media brands.

When The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator are finally free from the entanglement of RedBird, Sheikh Mansour and the UAE, we could be faced once again with a clean sheet of paper.

Then the dance would begin again — and almost anything could happen.

Snoddy: Gather round for the Telegraph soap opera

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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