Stephen Glover on the Press

The Barclay brothers had better get used to being written about

When Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay acquired the Telegraph Group last June, they may have thought that they were safe from knocking articles in other titles. There used to be a convention amongst British newspaper proprietors that "dog did not attack dog". But times have changed, as the Barclay brothers soon found out. No sooner was the ink dry on their contract than The Times lobbed a few grenades in their direction. The paper had discovered a lost brother, Douglas, who allegedly went bankrupt with Frederick in 1960. It also suggested that a Japanese business associate of the Barclays was not as straight as he might have been.

When Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay acquired the Telegraph Group last June, they may have thought that they were safe from knocking articles in other titles. There used to be a convention amongst British newspaper proprietors that "dog did not attack dog". But times have changed, as the Barclay brothers soon found out. No sooner was the ink dry on their contract than The Times lobbed a few grenades in their direction. The paper had discovered a lost brother, Douglas, who allegedly went bankrupt with Frederick in 1960. It also suggested that a Japanese business associate of the Barclays was not as straight as he might have been.

The Barclays are sensitive souls, and they cannot have liked these articles, though none of the revelations was shocking. In early November The Times unleashed a second fusillade which, on the whole, was as ineffectual as the first. One 300-word article, headlined "Twins swoop on owners in difficulty", alleged that the Barclay brothers "often take advantage of owners in distress to pick up assets on the cheap". I would have thought that this is what successful businessmen are supposed to do, but the Barclays clearly take a different view. The brothers started criminal proceedings against The Times for alleged defamation, and a summons from a French court was served on the paper's editor, Robert Thomson, and its media editor, Dan Sabbagh, last week. It is highly unusual for press proprietors to take legal action against other newspapers. And no one in a similar position, other than the Barclays on a previous occasion, has used a French court. Their justification is that The Times sells a few thousand copies in France.

Mr Thomson reacted by remarking that "this is a sad day for British journalism". Many will agree with him. But the editor of The Times cannot reasonably paint himself merely as the unfortunate victim of the Barclays' paranoia. His paper did make a beeline for them. This could not have happened without the say-so of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. He never sues, and, as a general rule, he does not allow his papers to be used to mount attacks on other press proprietors. But for some reason he has made an exception in the case of the Barclays. Perhaps he genuinely believes that there are interesting aspects of the brothers' past that deserve to be aired. He may also think it will do The Times no harm if the owners of its rival, The Daily Telegraph, are held up to scrutiny.

All the same, the Barclays are unwise to sue. Their lawyers have wrung a number of corrections from various publications over the past year. Last June the London Evening Standard carried this item: "In an article last Wednesday we stated that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay were both separated from their wives and children. This is incorrect. We apologise to them, their wives and their children". On 14 January this year the diary in the same paper made another correction: "On 26 November 2004 I reported that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay would consider any serious offer to sell The Spectator. I now accept that my story was wrong and apologise to both gentlemen". The current issue of Private Eye carries the most arresting correction of all: "In an article published on page three of our issue of 28 November - 9 December 2004 we alleged that minders employed by Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay had recently brandished guns at an innocent holidaymaker sailing near the Barclays' Channel Island, Brecqhou. The Barclays deny that such an incident took place. We accept that no such incident involving guns took place. We regret the errors in the article".

Hmm. Even before their acquisition of the Telegraph Group the Barclays were no strangers to writs, and they have had previous recourse to the French courts. In 1996 they took legal action against The Observer and its reporter John Sweeney under French privacy laws, after he arrived uninvited on the island of Brecqhou. They claimed that their privacy had been infringed. They lost the action. In a related case they also sued Mr Sweeney, as well as the then director-general of the BBC, John Birt, in respect of comments made by Mr Sweeney on Radio Guernsey. They won on appeal in Rennes - as a result of which both Mr Sweeney and Mr Birt have criminal records in France.

The Barclay brothers, evidently, do not like being written about. But they are now owners of a great national newspaper, whose business it is to write about people. They may have hoped that their ownership of The Daily Telegraph would give them a kind of immunity, but the opposite is the case. They will not be able to stop articles being written about them. There will be books as well, doubtless more astringent that the authorised biography being penned by their friend, Alistair McAlpine, which seems not to be intended for anything as crude as publication. The more writs they issue, the greater will be the appetite in the media to run stories about them. And writs, of course, always attract attention to stories which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. My advice to them is to withdraw this action against The Times, and to stop using French courts against British newspapers, a course of action that is bound to attract criticism. Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay are now in the public eye, and they had better get used to it.

No FT sale? No way. No matter what Pearson says

Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive of Pearson, has repeatedly said that the Financial Times is not for sale, but she may not be able to stand in the way. One fund manager at Franklin Templeton, which owns 12 per cent of Pearson, has backed a sale, as have other investors.

In the past, the paper has been a goldmine, making £56m as recently as 1999. But it has lost its way in recent years as costs have ballooned and advertising revenues slumped. In 2003 it made losses of £32m, which were reduced to £9m in 2004 after cost-cutting and some recovery in revenues. It may break even this year.

Most people think there are many more cost savings to be made. This explains why Terry Smith, chief executive of the stockbroker Collins Stewart Tullett, is sniffing around the title. Mr Smith was an early runner in the race for the Telegraph Group, but fell away when the price got too high.

There would certainly be other bidders if Ms Scardino felt obliged to sell. DMGT, publisher of the Daily Mail, would very likely be interested. So too would Rupert Murdoch's News International, though he would have to sell The Times under monopoly regulations. My money is strongly on a FT sale within 18 months.

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