One question that has been curiously underplayed in the purchase of London's Evening Standard by Alexander Lebedev, the Russian billionaire, is this: should a British newspaper be owned by a foreigner? In almost any other country this would be a highly charged issue – it is inconceivable that the French would allow an overseas company to buy Le Monde, the Italians La Stampa or the Spanish El Pais. It would be a matter of national honour.
In this country we are remarkably relaxed about foreign ownership of our media. This may be because we have got so used to it by now. Back in the last century, Lord Beaverbrook started life as a Canadian before turning Express Newspapers into a powerful force. Another Canadian, Lord Thomson, bought The Times and Sunday Times before offloading them to Rupert Murdoch, an Australian who became an American citizen to avoid the tough media ownership rules in the United States. Yet another Canadian, Conrad Black, bought the Telegraph group. Sir Anthony O'Reilly, whose company owns this newspaper, is a famous Irishman. Americans own a slice of our regional press. In my time at The Observer it was owned for four years by an American oil company, Atlantic Richfield, who were benign proprietors, for the most part, until they sold it off abruptly to Tiny Rowland – partly out of frustration with the print unions and partly out of frustration with me for not throwing the paper behind Margaret Thatcher.
If Lebedev's nationality has not been a big issue, his former membership of the KGB has, raising that old canard as to whether he is a "suitable person" to own a newspaper. People seem to think that this test applies to newspaper takeovers: not so, either under the old rules when the Department of Trade could refer mergers to the Monopolies Commission, now the Competition Commission (on whose newspaper panel I sat for six years), or under the new rules whereby the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, can ask Ofcom to decide if the sale serves the public interest. Under both the old and the new rules, the tests are substantially the same: the effects on market competition and whether there would be a threat to "accurate presentation of news" and "free expression of opinion". I cannot see Mr Lebedev failing any of these tests, especially in a time of economic crisis when competition issues, as in the Lloyds TSB and HBOS bank merger, tend to go by the board.
I can recall only one case where a takeover was refused because the new owner was regarded as "unsuitable" – when pornographer David O'Sullivan tried to buy a Bristol paper. In any event, with Richard Desmond unchallenged as owner of the Express group, Black in jail, and the disgraced Robert Maxwell an abiding memory as head of the Mirror group, a morality test for new owners seems unlikely – especially as Mr Lebedev appears to have been a KGB analyst, a desk jockey, rather than an 007-type field agent armed with a poisoned umbrella.
One puzzle remains about this takeover: where is Murdoch? He has been a predatory fixture at pretty well every newspaper deal I can recall for the past 40 years and was surely entitled to a seat at the poker table this time as owner of the freesheet, thelondonpaper, a rival to the Standard. His son-in-law, Matthew Freud, has evidently been encouraging Lebedev on – to what end is unclear. Can it be that Murdoch, the media's most wily operator, is getting too old for all this; does he regard getting the Wall Street Journal as his final newspaper war; or does he think the London market is too parochial to merit his attention? Or maybe none of the above and the old boy still has other tricks up his sleeve.
In the extraordinary case of the Conservative Croydon councillor, long-time chair of the education committee, who was unmasked as a former IRA member, I was reminded of a dramatic Saturday on The Observer 36 years ago. Councillor Gatland was then Maria McGuire and she had defected to our man in Ireland, Colin Smith. We were running her exclusive story and Smith took her around the broadcasting studios to promote it ahead of Sunday publication. The editor, David Astor, had arranged with Willie Whitelaw, then Northern Ireland secretary, that we would hand her over in exchange for police protection and agreement that she would not face criminal charges. On his way back from the BBC, Smith stopped at traffic lights at Shepherds Bush, west London, and saw in his wing mirror that a police car was coming up behind him. Thinking we had been betrayed, he shot the lights and raced back to the office with the police in hot pursuit.
Smith and Maria dumped the car and ran into the office, he racing up the stairs and she taking a seat in reception, as if she was waiting for a job interview or to place a classified ad. The police caught their traffic offender, but were never to know that the demure young lady they had passed in reception was an IRA gun-runner clutching a Walther semi-automatic pistol in her handbag.
Third time lucky – or unlucky? Jack Straw, the Justice Minister, wants specially appointed coroners to preside over secret courts that would exclude the press and the public – in the interests, he claims, of national security, but more, one suspects, to avoid embarrassing disclosures. He has twice tried and failed to push this measure though, most recently in the Counter Terrorism Act. Now he is trying again with the Coroners and Justice Bill. I commend to Mr Straw a passage in President Obama's inaugural address: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals... those ideals light the world and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
Donald Trelford was Editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield UniversityReuse content