In a bid backed by Abu Dhabi, the Red Bird IMI consortium has assured that journalists at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph will retain total editorial freedom, attempting to allay concerns that the papers might fall under the influence of an autocratic foreign state.

Led by Jeff Zucker, the consortium pledges that these commitments are supported by legally binding agreements and emphasizes the establishment of an independent editorial trust board to safeguard the Telegraph’s editorial independence.

The ownership transfer, initially set to proceed smoothly, faced government intervention due to apprehensions about potential control by an authoritarian foreign state.

The bid, primarily financed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, owner of Manchester City Football Club and vice-president/deputy prime minister of the UAE, stirred concerns among MPs, journalists, and readers alike.

Zucker, former CNN executive and the prospective chief executive of the Telegraph and Spectator, countered fears by asserting that the UAE would remain a “passive investor” with no sway over editorial decisions.

Despite the UAE providing 75% of the funds, Zucker insists on RedBird IMI being a responsible owner and addresses the auction process, stating that their strategic approach ensured certainty in securing the deal.

The Telegraph and Spectator were put up for sale last year after Lloyds Banking Group seized them from the Barclay family for failing to repay a loan exceeding £1 billion.

In an unexpected turn, the Barclays paid off their debt with funding from Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, leading to the proposed transfer to RedBird IMI.

The Conservative party, traditionally aligned with the Telegraph, exhibits deep misgivings about the takeover, with concerns raised about the UAE’s human rights record.

Suggestions to dilute Abu Dhabi’s shareholding by attracting additional investors were dismissed by RedBird IMI. Zucker affirms that the bid is “American led” and emphasizes the proposed structure’s ability to preserve the papers’ independence.

Central to RedBird IMI’s assurances is the establishment of an editorial trust board, serving to ensure editorial independence, handle disputes, and approve editor appointments.

Zucker contends that the board, along with legally underpinned protections, makes the Telegraph uniquely secure in terms of editorial independence among UK newspapers.

While the transfer of control is uncertain and could extend over several months, government intervention may involve referral to the Competition and Markets Authority, potentially leaving the ownership in limbo during critical election campaigning periods.

The UK’s relationship with Gulf states, particularly significant investors like the UAE, adds complexity to the situation.

Critics point to instances of press freedom breaches, such as mass journalist firings at Al Roeya, a Dubai newspaper owned by IMI. IMI, in response, asserts its commitment to editorial independence, outlining legal undertakings and structural separation within the Redbird IMI fund.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Culture and Media Secretary Lucy Frazer, who may allow the takeover, demand additional assurances, or block it outright.

The plans have been submitted to Ofcom and the government, with a preliminary ruling expected in February. The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport refrains from commenting on the matter.

 

Last Updated: 05 January 2023