Sunak urged to back laws giving Parliament veto on UAE-backed Telegraph takeover

Baroness Stowell has tabled an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill to create the new powers
Baroness Stowell has tabled an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill to create the new powers - JEFF GILBERT
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Rishi Sunak has been urged by a Tory peer to back new laws that would give Parliament a veto on the UAE-backed takeover of The Telegraph.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Baroness Stowell said “the principle of our news media being free from government control or interference is in jeopardy” and warned that public trust in the media risked being damaged.

She vowed that if he did not support the amendment she had tabled, which would give Parliament a veto over any sale to a foreign state, she would force a vote on it next week to show the strength of feeling in the Lords.

More than 100 MPs have pledged, in a letter to the Culture Secretary, to back the amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which would create the new powers.

Ministers and officials are holding discussions on whether to support it. Labour is also considering whether to back the amendment.

In her letter, Lady Stowell, a former leader of the House of Lords and former chairman of the Charity Commission, wrote: “Freedom of the press is a key pillar of our democracy. Public trust in news, Parliament, and the political class has fallen significantly in recent years.

“Allowing foreign governments to own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation would damage public confidence yet further.”

The proposed takeover of The Telegraph is currently in limbo pending investigations by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

RedBird IMI, a fund 75 per cent backed by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, has positioned itself to take control of The Telegraph in a complex £1.2 billion debt deal with the Barclay family, which values the company at £600 million.

In her letter, Lady Stowell wrote: “On more than one occasion in recent weeks, peers from all sides of the House of Lords have expressed concern that the principle of our news media being free from government control or interference is in jeopardy…”

She said her amendment had garnered the support of a number of peers, including Labour’s Lord Robertson, a former defence secretary and Nato secretary general, and Lord Forsyth, the Tory former Scottish secretary.

“The amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign government without the explicit approval of Parliament,” she said. “If passed, it would provide an additional and vital barrier of protection for press freedom in this country.

“We will be debating my amendment next Wednesday 13th March and I strongly urge the Government to support it. If not, I wanted you to know that based on the widespread and growing support from all benches across the House of Lords, I will call a division.”

Calling a division means that there will be a physical count of all members in favour or against, with the names of all those voting each way recorded. Often this does not happen, with amendments accepted or rejected simply on the basis of people shouting yea or nay.

Lady Stowell also praised the decision by Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, to instruct Ofcom and the CMA to investigate.

“This demonstrates that the Government has recognised the well-evidenced concerns about the potential for editorial influence and the risk of censorship by the UAE government,” she wrote.

Ofcom is scheduled to deliver its report to Ms Frazer by March 11. She would then be able to block the deal following further investigation by the CMA of its potential threat to press freedom.

However, Lady Stowell added: “But my concern, and that of many other peers, isn’t just about the potential acquisition of those important newspaper titles.

“What this situation has exposed is that – in law – there is nothing that clearly prohibits the acquisition of a UK news organisation by a foreign power or organisations under significant foreign government control.

“Indeed, the Government’s failure in 2019 to intervene successfully in the sale of 30 per cent stakes in the Independent and Evening Standard (quoting similar grounds for wanting to intervene in that case) is evidence of the weakness in our current legal framework.

“At a time when some parts of the UK news media face significant economic challenges, we cannot be complacent.”

In 2019, the Government launched an investigation into the sale of stakes in the Independent and the Evening Standard to an investor with strong links to Saudi Arabia.

The then culture secretary ordered the competition and media regulators to look at the sale of 30 per cent holdings in the newspaper by Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian owner.

He had sold 30 per cent of Lebedev Holdings to a Saudi businessman with ties to the country’s state owned bank for £25 million. In the end, the deal was allowed to go ahead.

RedBird IMI has pledged to protect editorial independence with legally binding undertakings that the UAE will be a passive investor only and that management of The Telegraph will be the sole responsibility of RedBird, the US private equity firm providing a quarter of the purchase price.

The Barclay family remain owners of The Telegraph but are barred by law from exercising any control.

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