UAE taking over Telegraph for influence not investment, says peer

The Telegraph editorial floor
The Telegraph editorial floor

The UAE wants to take over The Telegraph for influence rather than as an investment, a Tory peer has said.

Lord Forsyth, a former cabinet minister, told the House of Lords that Britain should not become the first country in the world to allow a foreign government to buy a quality newspaper.

He said the UAE was “totally unsuitable” to own a newspaper and that a free press was Britain’s “jewel in the crown”.

Several MPs and peers have already warned of the ramifications of the takeover bid by RedBird IMI, a fund which is backed by the United Arab Emirates government.

Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, has triggered a public interest investigation into the sale over concerns about the accurate presentation of news and free expression.

Lord Forsyth, who is a former Scottish Secretary, spoke as he made a “motion to regret” that a ban on ownership of newspapers by foreign governments was not part of a media bill going through Parliament.

Lord Forsyth speaking in the Lords
Lord Forsyth questioned the motives behind the UAE-backed proposed purchase of The Telegraph

Addressing the takeover, he said: “That doesn’t strike me as an investment opportunity; that strikes me as being an influence opportunity. And that is what is behind, I believe, the acquisition of the Daily Telegraph, and that is why a substantial premium is being offered.”

The peer noted the UAE’s “dreadful record on censorship and editorial influence”, its “threats to free expression and accurate presentation of news”, its record of locking journalists up, and its position at number 145 out of 180 countries on the freedom index.

“Is it really going to be the role of our nation and our government to be the first country in the world, I believe, to allow a quality newspaper with a large readership to be owned by a foreign government?” he asked.

Ofcom report due on March 11

The proposed takeover is in limbo pending the investigation by Ofcom. The media regulator is scheduled to deliver its report to Ms Frazer, who has powers to block the deal, by March 11.

Baroness Stowell, the chairman of the Communications and Digital Committee and a former Conservative cabinet minister, has put forward an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill that would grant Parliament a veto on foreign state ownership of the British news media.

In yesterday’s debate, she said the proposed takeover “raises big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlet’s owners and its coverage”.

“We need to have confidence in our media,” she said. “Having foreign governments own such a critical and significant part of our nation is not only unnecessary and troubling: if it were allowed to happen it would completely undermine public confidence in our free press.”

She asked ministers to take the amendment seriously and urged them to meet her to discuss it before it is debated by peers on March 11, the same day Ofcom is due to report to Ms Frazer.

The elephant in the room

Lord Forsyth said the media bill did not address the “elephant in the room” – the ownership of newspapers by foreign governments.

“How can it be outside the scope of the bill? Surely it is an absolute principle here that foreign governments should not be able to own newspapers.

“Surely the most important matter that we need to be concerned with is the freedom and integrity of our press, the jewel in our nation’s crown which we’ve always revered.”

Lord Forsyth said the government was doing “nothing” to help save The Telegraph.

“In every corner of this house, people are concerned by the idea that the Daily Telegraph could fall into the ownership of a foreign government - and yet the government is doing nothing about it in this bill, which they could,” he said.

‘The UAE today. Tomorrow North Korea?’

“I can think of few countries that are less suitable, or totally unsuitable, to own a newspaper than the UAE.”

He said that assurances given by George Osborne, the former chancellor, and others that there were structures in place to protect the paper’s independence were not enough.

Concluding, Lord Forsyth said: “The Government’s duty is to maintain a free press in our country and to make sure that our press are not subject to undue influence.

“A free press is a central part of a free country - and if we are going to allow the UAE today, why not other states tomorrow? Why not North Korea?

“There is a principle here, a principle which ought to be clearly on the face of the bill.”

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