UAE and The Telegraph: putting press freedom up for sale?

Concern over editorial independence threatens RedBird IMI bid for newspaper group

Sheikh Mansour Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum takes a photo with his phone
RedBird IMI is funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president of the UAE and owner of Manchester City Football Club
(Image credit: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty)

A bid to purchase a group of British newspapers by a United Arab Emirates investment fund is gathering steam amid an outcry over press freedom and possible interference by the autocratic regime.

RedBird IMI is close to sealing a deal to take control of Telegraph Media Group, which owns The Telegraph newspapers and The Spectator magazine, in exchange for the repayment of £1.15 billion owed by the Barclay family, the long-standing owners of The Telegraph, to Lloyds Banking Group. 

The bid is fronted by Jeff Zucker, the former chief executive of CNN who now runs RedBird IMI – "which is mostly funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the vice president of the United Arab Emirates and owner of Manchester City football club", said The Guardian

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Although Zucker has promised to maintain the publications' editorial independence, the culture secretary Lucy Frazer hinted that she might "intervene" before the weekend by asking the media regulator, Ofcom, to examine the proposed deal on public interest grounds, said the paper. Frazer wrote to RedBird IMI saying that she was aware the fund had "links to media organisations that have been critiqued for partisan views and therefore believes there may be an impact on the plurality of views of newspapers in the UK" if the bid goes through.

The Foreign Office "stepped in to try and 'soften' the language used by Frazer", said The Guardian, "over concerns the language could offend the UAE" ahead of the Global Investment Summit in London for foreign investors next week, and Rishi Sunak's trip to the Gulf the following week for the Cop28 climate conference.

'Nothing I understand more than editorial independence'

Dominic Johnson, the UK investment minister, warned critics of the controversial bid not to get "sentimental about some of our so-called treasured assets". 

Amid "mounting calls" for the government to intervene in the proposed acquisition of "the nearly 200-year-old conservative staple", Johnson, a City financier and investment minister in the Department for Business and Trade, told Politico that the economy needed to remain "open".

The Telegraph would be editorially separate from Abu Dhabi financiers, said the Financial Times, and run and managed by US media veterans such as Zucker. 

RedBird IMI's representatives, who include former Ofcom boss Ed Richards, have "sought to reassure the UK government over editorial independence, including by pledging a legally binding joint venture shareholders agreement and a separate legal undertaking to the UK government", said the paper. 

RedBird IMI said it was "fully committed" to maintaining the existing management and editorial teams. Sheikh Mansour's investment fund IMI (International Media Investments) also owns a stake in CNN Business Arabic, Euronews and Sky News Arabia. "Those close to the group insist any intervention in the running of the newspaper would be counterproductive and damaging to the brand," said the paper.

"I've spent 35 years running or supervising news organisations," said Zucker, "and there's nothing I understand more than editorial independence."

Zucker accused rival bidders now warning about threats to media freedom of hypocrisy, telling the FT that they had previously approached him about a joint takeover bid.

'Our cultural differences are too great'

It's understandable that trade minister Dominic Johnson would want to "ingratiate himself with a wealthy foreign government looking to invest money in this country", said the Daily Mail

Britain is a "globalised free-market economy" and welcomes legitimate commercial funding. But there are certain "precious institutions and freedoms that must not be compromised at any price". This principle "seems to have escaped Lord Johnson", said the Mail. But "it is not sentimentality to want to preserve freedom of the press. It is a democratic necessity." 

It's hard to see how The Telegraph titles would be guaranteed their editorial independence, because on the topic of press freedom, that "autocratic regime" is "far from enlightened". Amid disinformation and conspiracy theories that "infest" social media, fair and accurate journalism "must be protected at all costs".

There is far more to admire about the UAE than there is to dislike or fear, wrote former Conservative MP and foreign secretary William Hague in The Times, but you can admire a country without losing sight of "important differences" – or their "reliably pro-government" news publications.

"Our cultural differences on freedom of expression are quite obviously too great for that. We should be honest, as our Emirati friends would be with us, that owning major newspapers is going too far."

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