UK to ban foreign state ownership of British newspapers

A government spokesperson added that the move would "deliver additional protections for a free press, a pillar of our democracy".

14 Mar 2024 02:06pm
The plan comes amid an Abu Dhabi-led takeover attempt for the Telegraph Media Group. - Photo by AFP
The plan comes amid an Abu Dhabi-led takeover attempt for the Telegraph Media Group. - Photo by AFP
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LONDON - The UK announced Wednesday that it plans to bar overseas governments from owning British newspapers, a move that could scupper the contentious Abu Dhabi-led takeover of the Telegraph Media Group.

Stephen Parkinson, a media minister, announced in the upper-chamber House of Lords that the Conservative government would amend proposed legislation so that it "prevents foreign state ownership of newspapers".

A government spokesperson added that the move would "deliver additional protections for a free press, a pillar of our democracy".

It follows pressure over the proposed takeover of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and Spectator magazine by a joint venture 75 per cent owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.

RedBird IMI, a joint venture between US firm RedBird Capital and Abu Dhabi's International Media Investments, struck a £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) deal with TMG's owners, the Barclay family, in November.

The agreement saw RedBird IMI pay off bank debts in exchange for control of the media group.

The announcement sparked an uproar in British media circles and the UK government quickly opened a formal probe into the sale on public-interest grounds.

The takeover plans have also raised concerns among some lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party, which has long enjoyed a close ideological relationship with the right-leaning Telegraph titles.

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The Spectator -- once edited by former Tory prime minister and Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson -- is widely considered the "Tory bible".

Its chair Andrew Neil told Sky News the announcement was "a move in the right direction" but said the government came "late to the party", as he had long called for such legislation.

The takeover plans have also led to consternation among Telegraph staff, who have repeatedly spoken out against it, and press freedom activists who denounce the UAE's record on press censorship.

- Minority interests? -

The government spokesperson hinted that the changes were sparked by the proposed takeover of the Telegraph titles.

"We have listened carefully to the arguments made by parliamentarians in recent weeks, and are taking action to explicitly rule out foreign state ownership, influence or control of newspapers and periodical news magazines," the spokesperson said.

The amendment is set to be added for next week's scheduled third and final reading of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, meaning they could come into force soon.

"We intend that the changes should take immediate effect upon royal assent," said Parkinson, confirming that the ban would not apply to broadcasters.

RedBird IMI is majority-owned by Sheikh Mansour, who is also owner of Manchester City football club.

RedBird IMI is run by former CNN president Jeff Zucker, who has said that Mansour would be a "passive investor" and that the takeover was "American-led".

British media suggested that minority interests in newspapers and magazines by foreign governments might be allowed, leaving the door open for a restructured bid by RedBird that reduces the UAE's stake. - Peter Hutchinson / AFP