War over `TV Times' sale

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Tension - which could this week erupt into open warfare - is mounting over the prospective pounds 900m sale of a stable of Britain's most famous magazines including TV Times, Loaded, Marie Claire and Homes & Gardens.

The controversy circles around allegations that IPC, which owns the magazines, may not be sold to the highest bidder.

On one side stand Reed Elsevier, the Anglo-Dutch media conglomerate, its consumer publishing division IPC and their merchant bank adviser, SBC Warburg Dillon Read. On the other side stands a scattered group of rival bidders who assert that the auction for IPC's 70 magazines is being short-circuited.

There are four bidders, three of which have been named: Cinven, the venture capital arm of the British Coal Board pension fund, the German firm Heinrich Bauer, publisher of Bella and other UK magazines and EMAP, the UK magazine publisher.

"As a shareholder in Reed Elsevier, I want the highest price possible for IPC," said one investor. "From what I am hearing I am worried that IPC will go for less than the highest price possible."

"That is nonsense," replied a source close to the Reed Elsevier camp. "It is inconceivable that any of the parties involved in the sale would act in anything except the best interests of the shareholders."

Reed Elsevier is moving away from consumer publishing towards a concentration on the sale of scientific and professional information, much of it electronically. In November it com-missioned Warburg to consider all options for IPC, including a sale. A week ago the Sunday Telegraph reported that Reed had entered into exclusive talks with Cinven, aimed at closing a sale by tomorrow. As a result rival bidders and some investors have cried foul.

The Reed Elsevier camp alleges a spoiling operation by sore losers. Sources close to Warburg say they and Reed Elsevier have always reserved the right to dispose of IPC in "whatsoever manner they saw fit". Speed and "other economic concerns" as well as price are issues, they say.

One rival bidder claims that whatever the "small print" may say, the "spirit" of the auction is to get the highest price possible for IPC. He says he might be prepared to trump the offer tabled by Cinven if he is given access to the same information.