National treasure it may be, but cash will decide Telegraph's fate

Bidding for the troubled group closes on Tuesday. And the gloves are off
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The Independent Online

On Tuesday, Lazard, the merchant bank handling the possible sale of the Telegraph Group, will close the door on bids for the group, and the endgame will begin. It may be protracted. It may have a status quo outcome. But it may bring about another of those major changes in the national newspaper landscape that cause much wailing among journalists and much financial joy among shareholders.

Such times are difficult for the journalists - in this case on the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and The Spectator. Their editors, used to power, must admit to or disguise the fact that they are powerless in the face of the moneymen and shareholders.

The editorial staff know just about nothing, and complain that this period of uncertainty is destabilising them and affecting the quality of their work. It is an easy excuse for falling circulation - and The Daily Telegraph's Monday to Friday sale has taken a pounding recently - but in reality it is other factors that are the cause of that.

Because newspapers are not like other commodities, in that they are life and blood and passion, exciting strong emotions all round, sentimentality can be an easy bolt hole for the hacks. They forget that Conrad Black, whose greed has produced the current situation, was revered by all his editors and seen as a benevolent proprietor. Some were still publicly adoring him after his fall from grace.

So we get the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, writing in The Spectator, part of the group, that the paper is a "national treasure", and that support for good journalism must be secured from any purchaser of the group. He goes on to suggest that "any buyer will need to spend more before he earns more". Well perhaps, but such sentiments are unlikely to feature strongly in the bid documents Lazard will receive by Tuesday night.

Interestingly, although Moore appealed for senior Telegraph editorial executives to have the opportunity to talk to bidders, the presentation team put together to present to bidders excludes the editors of the Daily, and Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. Only one journalist will be in that team, the editorial director, Kim Fletcher.

However much the Telegraphs can be regarded as a national treasure, they have been the dominant player in what we used to call the broadsheet sector of the market for a long time, they produce good journalism among the ordinary and they have a strong middle-class, middle-aged, conservative market.

The argument that a great newspaper will be diminished by a change of ownership and "maximising shareholder return", as Lazard would put it, has been used in the relatively recent past about The Observer, the Express, The Times, the Mirror and, yes, even this paper.

Potential owners of the Telegraph are invited to bid for either Hollinger International, which wholly owns the Telegraph Group and titles in Jerusalem, Chicago and Canada, or for the package of British titles and associated interests, like printing. Serious bidders - trade bids (from other publishers) and private equity bids (from venture capitalists or finance houses) are likely to put in for both, in order to secure a place on the shortlist.

In the former category expect to see the Daily Mail owners, Richard Desmond's Express Group, the Barclay brothers, owners of The Scotsman, and Gannett, the American corporation which in this country owns Newsquest, the second largest publisher of regional newspapers. In the private equity sector, expect bids from APAX, 3I, and Candover. There will be others.

With Lazard's advice, Hollinger International will draw up a shortlist within a week or two, and they will have access to the books through a secure virtual data room and presentations from seven senior Telegraph executives. There will have to be a final decision about which company is sold. A buyer could emerge in early May, or Hollinger International could decide to retain the company. If there is a sale there might be a reference to the regulator, Ofcom, but there does not have to be. All that is certain is that shareholder value will be maximised.

The poacher turned gamekeeper

The senior Lazard executive handling the Telegraph sale is Nick Shott, with whom I spent two very enjoyable years in a state of continuous crisis at The Sunday Correspondent. He was chief executive and I was editor. He shot pheasants, I didn't; but he brought me the odd bird after a successful weekend's shooting. Together we made more than 50 presentations to potential investors, in the UK and the United States, while raising the £18m we needed to launch the paper. In the course of securing the final dose of refinancing before the paper folded in 1990, I was "removed" by the chairman, Sir John Nott, the Secretary of State for Defence during Margaret Thatcher's Falklands adventure. Nott later took Shott into Lazard's, which he then chaired. Now Shott can organise others making presentations to potential buyers. While I write about it. The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.

¿ Glittering prizes: The Independent's own report of winning the Newspaper of the Year title in the British Press Awards described the awards as "the Oscars of the newspaper industry". A few weeks ago I heard a reporter on BBC Radio 5 describe the Oscars as "the American Baftas". I'm sure that's how Hollywood sees them.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield