Independent News & Media (UK) buys Belfast Telegraph

Independent News & Media, publishers of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, yesterday secured the purchase of the Belfast Telegraph from Trinity Mirror for £300m.

The sale of Belfast Telegraph Newspapers Ltd (BNTL), which also publishes Sunday Life and Farm Trader and has a fast-expanding online division, was imposed upon Trinity Mirror last year as a condition of its £1.3bn merger gaining UK regulatory approval.

"It's a very strong metropolitan newspaper franchise," said Brendan Hopkins, managing director of Independent News & Media UK. "It's got terrific upside and Northern Ireland is beginning to show strong economic expansion."

News of the sale sparked opposition from some Unionist quarters, which have expressed concern about the Dublin-based Independent group owning Northern Ireland's biggest newspaper publisher. Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, visiting Washington yesterday and unavailable for comment, had last week filed concerns over the deal to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. John Taylor, deputy leader of the UUP and owner of several local newspapers, said on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday: "There should be no politics involved in this whatsoever. It should be on the strict issue of competition and the threat to jobs."

Mr Hopkins welcomed the opportunity to put Independent News & Media's case to the Competition Commission. "From a competition perspective we do not have a strong position in Northern Ireland," he said. Independent News & Media's biggest selling newspaper in the province is the Northern Ireland edition of the Dublin-based Sunday World, which sells 72,000 copies per week. "Furthermore, we believe very much in editorial independence. We feel that the strength of the local board will answer all of the questions of representation."

The local board of BTNL will include Lord Rogan, chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party; Dr Chris Gibson, a former chairman of the CBI; and Berna McIvor, a prominent member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party; solicitors Trevor Ringland and Aidan Canavan; and Lady Moira Quigley, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Livestock Commission.

Under UK law governing the sale of newspapers, the deal will be subject to Competition Commission clearance. The commission, which is expected to take four to six months to review the deal, will report to Mr Byers.

Independent News & Media is understood to have faced stiff competition from rival bidders, including 3i, the venture capital group, and Gannett, the US publisher that acquired Newsquest, the regional publisher, in 1999. 3i had employed David Montgomery, an Ulster native and former Mirror Group chief executive, as an advisor.

Analysts said the price paid for BTNL was at the top end of the range, but noted that the company is one of the premier publishing businesses in the country with operating profit in 1999 of £21m on sales of £54m. "In recent months valuations have moved ahead rapidly in the media sector," said Anthony de Larrinaga, analyst with City firm WestLB Panmure. Philip Graf, Trinity Mirror CEO, said: "We've had good interest from trade buyers and got an excellent price. It's been sold to a good owner."

Management and staff at BTNL welcomed the sale to Independent News & Media. "I feel certain that Independent News & Media will bring further benefits to our company and ensure that it continues to play an important role in Northern Ireland as one of the province's leading companies," said Derek Carvell, BTNL's managing director.

Edmund Curran, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, said he envisioned no changes in the editorial policy of the newspaper. "The Telegraph is one of the great cross-community institutions of Ulster," he said. "The strength is recognised and I look forward to a future with that distinctive editorial integrity and objectivity intact."

Independent News & Media stock closed unchanged at 665p.

The sale announcement by Trinity Mirror coincided with the company's launch of a three-year plan to invest £150m in its online business, ic24.

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