Hardly a week goes by in Britain without the closure of a newspaper. Substantial areas of the population now have no form of local paper at all.
The industry is suffering inexorable decline. London, the capital city, hub of the nation’s economy, and political and cultural life, is not immune. The Evening Standard was on the cusp of closure under its former owners, and rescued by Evgeny Lebedev. Then, when sales continued to be eroded by the internet, London’s only evening newspaper abandoned its traditional paid-for model and went free. Life for the paper, though, remained a struggle.
So, it was good news when the same Saudi who had pumped money into Lebedev’s other title, The Independent, in return for a 30 per cent stake, agreed to invest in the Evening Standard. Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel bought 30 per cent of the London newspaper for £25m, effectively giving it a future.
Now the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, is considering referring the Saudi shareholding to the Competition and Markets Authority, to determine whether it skews the titles’ editorial coverage. The Independent is now no longer in print, but online. Having weathered successive blows, the Evening Standard faces uncertainty again.
But this time from an unlikely source. It’s not the global digital giants that are lining up to attack the Evening Standard, nor is it a competitor. No, it’s a government that stands for free enterprise – that you might suppose would wish to uphold the public service that local newspapers provide – putting the Evening Standard’s funding pipeline at risk.
The concern, apparently, is that Abuljadayel enjoys close links to Saudi’s rulers, and that they will use the Evening Standard and Independent to promote their policies, agenda and interests.
Wright, though, is ignoring a crucial fact: Abuljadayel is a minority shareholder. He owns just 30 per cent; he has no control over anything; he does not command a majority on the boards of the companies that own the Evening Standard and Independent; neither he nor his associates can direct or influence editorial content.
Critics of the relationship between Lebedev and the new investor ignore this detail. They maintain Abuljadayel and his Saudi connections must enjoy editorial power, even though the titles’ independence from investors is enshrined in their shareholder agreements.
As someone who edited The Independent under Lebedev, and worked for him in a senior editorial capacity across his titles, including the Evening Standard, for several years, I find this argument hard to believe.
I can vouch that in my tenure, Lebedev not once ordered me to take a certain line or sought to direct our journalism. Yes, occasionally we carried pictures of Lebedev, but usually in relation to a charity appeal or his promotion of a recognisably deserving cause.
His approach was refreshingly different from some other media proprietors elsewhere down the years. These were newspapers that were haemorrhaging cash, yet Lebedev and his family ploughed in more than £100m to keep them going. And they did not seek to use them for their own commercial or political ends.
Of course, even now, in a tough market with falling revenues, there is a kudos that accompanies owning newspapers. Being a proprietor of a major title brings profile and status. In conversations with Lebedev, though, it was also clear that he and his family held independent journalism in the highest esteem, that hailing from the former Soviet Union, where the media was placed under heavy state restriction, they put immense store by press freedom.
There was pragmatism to them, too. They were fully aware that owning a title called The Independent, and another, the Evening Standard, the paper for London, a world city renowned for liberty and tolerance, brought added responsibilities – to defy them would have ruined the brands as well as the owners’ personal reputations.
Nothing has appeared in the period since Abuljadayel injected his money to suggest that he, and those said to be behind him, have enjoyed any editorial leverage or favours. The Independent and Evening Standard have continued to scrutinise and, when they see fit, criticise Saudi Arabia, and seemingly have not shied away from doing so.
There are inconsistencies in the Wright move. His is an administration that proclaims Britain is “open for business”. They desire more foreign investment. But a foreigner invests in two world-famous British products, to ensure their survival, and they’re treated like this.
Lebedev himself is a foreigner. Yet when he acquired majority control as a Russian he was not subjected to the same questioning treatment. Abuljadayel is Saudi, and there has to be the suspicion that anti-Saudi sentiment is motivating those pressing Wright to act. Again, that cannot be a justification: Britain remains a close trading partner with Saudi Arabia; deals with that country are not subject to sanctions.
Wright is sending a wrong signal. He is casting a pall over the titles when there should be none – least of all above the Evening Standard which relies upon advertising for its only source of income. He is brandishing a sign saying “unwelcome” to foreign businesses. And he is exhibiting a marked lack of understanding of how companies function, pursuing a minority holding as if it was a majority. He should stop now.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent
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