O'Reilly seeking substantial 'Independent' stake

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The Independent Online
TONY O'REILLY, chief executive of H J Heinz, the American food conglomerate, will table a proposal today aimed at gaining a stake in Newspaper Publishing, owner of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, of between 25 and 29.9 per cent.

Speaking from the Bahamas yesterday, he said that this would be in the form of cash and a subscription for new shares to expand the shareholding base of the company. The investment which, if successful, would make him the largest shareholder, would be made through Liam Healey, chief executive of Independent Newspapers, which Dr O'Reilly chairs.

He said that between pounds 20m and pounds 30m of new money was on offer in the proposed deal, which will be made to a six-strong committee of Newspaper Publishing directors.

Dr O'Reilly went on: 'We are intent on making an offer that we believe will solve and address all of the issues affecting the Independent.' If this approach failed, then other options would be considered, including a full bid, although this would be pursued as part of a consortium. 'We won't go away,' he added.

'We most assuredly don't want a controlling stake, that defeats the mission of the paper.' He said the new capital would solve the newspapers' immediate financial problems, while in the longer term he wanted to see investment in their editorial.

'There is the vital issue of the perception of the independence of the newspapers. We are not looking for 40 per cent of the paper.' This is a reference to the rival plan by Mirror Group Newspapers to take a 40 per cent stake through a consortium takeover proposed and headed by Andreas Whittam Smith, editor and founder of the Independent. That bid implied substantial interference by MGN, he added.

Dr O'Reilly, who is also a director of the Washington Post, said he was prepared to underwrite independent journalism through an editorial charter. He said: 'We believe that there should be a termination of this rather public debate about the paper which must be very debilitating. It needs a quick solution . . . we believe very much in the future of the paper.'

He said that economies of between pounds 6m and pounds 9m a year could be achieved by negotiating better printing and distribution contracts. 'These are all areas in which we have considerable experience.'

He said that MGN made considerable play of the way it could harness its facilities to provide services for the Independent, but there was considerable overcapacity in the newspaper industry and a wide range of potential trade partners could 'match anything the Mirror Group can provide. Any one of the major groups would be happy to provide these facilities on a very cost-effective basis.'

He added that it was 'premature to comment at this stage' on whether the Independent needed a new editor. 'Clearly he (Mr Whittam Smith) is the inspiration for the paper, he is the personification. He would want to continue to have a role, even if his plan is not accepted. An important role. I don't know what that is. The future we see is the future he saw.'

Last night, Mr Whittam Smith said of his consortium's proposal that 'discussions were advanced to find a fair price for our shareholders'. Since he unveiled his bid last Monday, the committee of Newspaper Publishing's board has been waiting for financial details.

Schroders, the merchant bank acting for Newspaper Publishing's Italian and Spanish shareholders, La Repubblica and El Pais, said that it expected to meet Newspaper Publishing's advisers today as a final preparation to announcing their terms, expected to be between pounds 2 and pounds 3 per share.

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