After life with Black and the Barclays, can a Sheikh hold any fear for Newland?

The former editor of 'The Daily Telegraph' has decamped to Abu Dhabi to launch an English-language paper. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

Former editors of national newspapers rarely abandon hope of returning to the top chair. From the moment you are appointed, dismissal is the only certainty, but intense ambition is hard to kill, even for the toughest proprietors. And Martin Newland, editor of The Daily Telegraph between 2003 and 2005, has worked for some of the most robust in the business.

His first owner at the bible of English conservatism was Conrad Black, who is now facing a lengthy jail sentence in the US. Newland remained in post when Lord Black sold the title to the Barclay brothers who have not achieved their successes by championing sentimentality. Now he has a new editorship, and a proprietor who may prove the most difficult yet.

In August Newland slipped out of the UK for the United Arab Emirates, telling local journalists there, "I am assessing the chances of launching a national newspaper out of Abu Dhabi." The chances soon appeared good, as they ought to be with funding guaranteed by the government-backed Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC). By October, the still nameless embryonic newspaper had a core team in place and in recent weeks the trickle has become a flood. Newland has recruited 90 journalists in preparation for a launch scheduled for the first quarter of next year.

The UAE-based media website Communicate.ae reports that he will have a total editorial staff of between 180 and 200 people. Newland told Communicate: "We need reporters. It will be a big content operation. Anyone who wants to come and work for us, please give us a call. We will consider every CV gratefully."

He has received many CVs from British journalists made redundant in recent staff-cutting exercises at News International and at the Telegraph titles. Those already on board include Colin Randall, a former Daily Telegraph news editor and Paris correspondent, who is writing the style book and is the project's executive news editor.

Sunday Telegraph comment editor Bob Cowan has joined. So has Anna Seaman, a highly regarded writer on The Daily Mail's Femail section. Sue Ryan, former managing editor of the Telegraph, is helping her former boss as a London-based consultant. Ex-Telegraph foreign editor Alan Philps has also agreed a UK-based role as associate editor.

Newland has also wooed talent in North America where he is remembered as the successful launch editor of the National Post, the Canadian newspaper launched in 1998 by Conrad Black as a competitor to the established Globe and Mail.

Jonathan Shainin, an editor at New Yorker magazine will be the Abu Dhabi newspaper's Review editor. Bill Spindle, corporate finance editor of The Wall Street Journal, will run the business desk. The designer is Lucie Lacava, the Canadian who fashioned the National Post's clean, modern image.

The market is easy to define. Newland has explained that: "This area is absolutely exploding with potential – in many ways running too fast, with infrastructure having to catch up. The paper is aimed at anyone at the high end, so you're looking at broadsheet quality, people earning over £100,000 who speak English. In this place, that's the Indian middle classes, the Anglosphere ex-pats and Emiratis, who speak it fluently."

But if his reputation is working as a magnet for talented staff, he will have to take care to preserve his editorial integrity. His proprietor is a state backed entity with close connections to the UAE's Ministry of Information and Culture.

The UAE constitution guarantees press freedom, but sceptics compare that pledge to "putting journalists in a minefield and telling them they are free to go as they please". In its most recent report on the country, published last year, campaign group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) noted that "the content and political line of newspapers, especially Arab-language ones, is closely monitored."

English language publications are granted greater leeway, but RSF warned: "A 1988 law states topics that cannot be mentioned and journalists censor themselves in matters of domestic policy, the life of the ruling families, religion or relations with neighbouring countries. The foreign press is censored before it goes on sale."

Newland talked about the issue of censorship in his interview with Communicate, insisting that he will not publish a government propaganda sheet.

"I don't think I'd be sitting here if I really thought that was going to be the case... I've launched one national already [and] by God, you don't turn down a chance at a second one."

He explained that he has been hired "to launch a newspaper that will best succeed in communicating news to people and in garnering, off the back of that, a commercial dividend".

But Martin Newland is not naïve about the society in which he has chosen to revive his editorial career. He told Communicate's interviewer that he sees that the job of his new newspaper is to "mediate the news" not to provoke controversy, adding, "I know everyone's going to want to drive things into discussions about censorship, but I'm not going to go there. Our problem is not who owns it, our problem is quality."

Launching a title in the country requires a government licence and, although there are several publications based there, including Al Ittihad, an Arabic-language daily, several UAE publishers have recently been denied licences. Local analysts say a proposed magazine, Arabian Business Standard, was turned down earlier this year.

Ministers in the government of hereditary ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan have called on journalists to take advantage of legally sanctioned freedoms. One recently declared that "media institutions that serve only to offer echoes of serving applause are of no value to government or to the people". But much of Abu Dhabi's media is owned or subsidised by the government and lawyers who question the state's human rights record are harassed by the security forces.

Martin Newland told Communicate: "If you are going to pick fights you have to be careful of two things. One is that it's the right fight, and two is that you'll win it... I don't think making a name for yourself is by humiliating people or attacking them." Friends and former colleagues fear the intensely honest and straightforward Newland will often have cause to swallow hard and occasionally bite his tongue.

Perhaps he will find solace in his devout but not unquestioning Catholic faith. St Joseph's Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi is a concrete building devoid of glamour, but it exists, and Mass is celebrated there. If the going gets tough it may provide welcome respite.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent

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