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Pearl-clutching over the UAE bid to buy the Telegraph has a whiff of hypocrisy about it – and self-interest

Think the potential purchase is a threat to press freedom? You should see the alternative, writes former Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne

Tuesday 13 February 2024 21:03 GMT
The Barclay brothers, having paid too much for the Telegraph in 2004, ran out of cash and stopped investing in decent journalism
The Barclay brothers, having paid too much for the Telegraph in 2004, ran out of cash and stopped investing in decent journalism (Shutterstock)

Few campaigns have been waged with more unrelenting ferocity than the concerted attempt by the Conservative Party right to block the UAE-financed takeover of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator.

Fraser Nelson, the current editor of The Spectator, argues that the UAE poses a threat to a free press.

Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, notes that the bid is fronted by media baron Jeff Zucker because, under him, “CNN became an aggressively left-wing news network”.

I agree with Moore and Nelson (and many other voices) that the Telegraph and The Spectator are valuable national institutions. I also agree with them that UAE ownership would raise vital issues about freedom of speech and press freedom.

But I take issue with their diagnosis. It would indeed be a disaster if the titles were bought by Paul Marshall. Marshall is the rival bidder into whose hands the Telegraph will almost certainly fall if the UAE bid is blocked.

He is the hedge-fund manager who owns GB News, a shoddy channel that is known for its biased and inflammatory coverage from the perspective of the Trumpian right of the Conservative Party. Its standards are notoriously lax.

Judging by the outlets he has chosen to fund, Marshall appears to be much more interested in sponsoring culture wars than the responsible, fact-based reporting for which the Telegraph used to be famous. Despite Marshall having no editorial control over the content, the clickbait culture that GB News represents would destroy the Telegraph, already badly weakened by 10 years of the Barclay brothers’ mismanagement, as surely as night follows day. I can think of worse potential owners of The Daily Telegraph, but not many.

By contrast, there is at the very least a fighting chance that Abu Dhabi-backed investment fund RedBird IMI, led by Zucker, can recreate – and perhaps surpass – the magnificent newspaper that used to be such a powerful and respected voice of middle England.

The first reason is financial. The Barclay brothers, having paid too much for the paper in 2004, ran out of cash and stopped investing in decent journalism. I admire the way the senior Telegraph editorial team has held the show together, but this chronic lack of investment helps to explain why trust in the paper stands so low.

This can change. Consider Manchester City, a struggling and financially stretched club overshadowed by its local rival until UAE investors turned it into the best football team in Britain and probably the world. They achieved this astonishing feat by hiring a great manager and investing in the best players and infrastructure.

For some reason, the most senior writers at the Telegraph are determined to stop the UAE-backed bid. I understand from private conversations that some of the more junior staff disagree. They think that they will have much better job security, more exciting prospects, and a far more respectable product with the new UAE investment than as the partner of GB News.

I accept that the Telegraph is a newspaper and not a football club. It carries political heft, and some of its reporters have access at senior levels of the British security establishment. Objections to ownership by a foreign state are serious and genuine, all the more so because of UAE’s domestic record on press freedom.

Two points can be made here. Over recent years, British press proprietors have not, to put it mildly, been saints. They have included at least one fraudster, a pornographer, and one celebrated owner who ended up in jail. Others probably ought to have joined him. This pearl-clutching over the UAE has the whiff of hypocrisy.

And not just hypocrisy. Also self-interest. The long period of Barclay brothers decrepitude has been a blessing for the paper’s rivals. The last thing the Murdoch empire or Mail newspapers want is serious competition once again from a properly financed Daily Telegraph. Much better from their point of view that it become affiliated with GB News.

Furthermore, the new UAE owners would be obliged to make cast-iron guarantees of editorial independence. Even if that weren’t the case, they would not be keen to trash the Telegraph’s reputation by turning it into a vehicle for the UAE’s interests.

In an expertly written article in this newspaper last weekend, Simon Nixon showed brilliantly that these fears arose from a failure to understand how the private equity industry works. He also pointed to an attack of “little Englandism”. Britain has turned its back on Europe. Do we want to cut out the rest of the world?

I write as someone who has known and loved the Telegraph all my life. My grandfather, Tom Oborne, a retired Lt Col who earned a DSO in the Second World War, was the archetypal Telegraph reader. He had a special rack on the breakfast table and would read the paper carefully over his bacon and eggs, devoting special attention to the leaders.

I often thought about my grandfather when, many years later, I was lucky enough to become a Telegraph journalist myself, and sometimes fretted that he might not have approved of what I wrote.

In the interests of transparency, I should mention that, in 2015, I resigned as the Telegraph’s chief political commentator because I believed it had suppressed coverage of corruption allegations involving HSBC Bank in order to protect a valuable advertising account with the bank.

Then, I accused the owners of the Telegraph of carrying out a “fraud on its readers”. The Telegraph denied all of my allegations, issuing a statement that was published by The Independent in 2015.

Moore, in a strong attack on the prospect of UAE ownership of the Telegraph, wrote last November that “from the editorial point of view”, the Barclay brothers “were good proprietors, in that they did not tell their editors what to write”. This was emphatically not my experience.

To my knowledge, advertisers were allowed to exert improper influence over editorial matters under their ownership. As I said when I resigned in 2015, there was strong circumstantial evidence that the Chinese state, via the Telegraph’s lucrative China Watch supplement, was one of the beneficiaries. I don’t think the same would happen under UAE ownership. With the world watching, all hell would break out if it did.

The Telegraph at its best represents the quiet decency and pragmatism of the British people. By a very British paradox, I am quite certain that UAE investors offer much the better prospect of saving the Telegraph as a great institution.

We do not live in a perfect world. I would love to go back to the days when the paper was owned by Lord Hartwell, edited by the greatly loved Bill Deedes, and leader conferences were leisurely affairs conducted over scones and afternoon tea. That elegiac option is unavailable.

If I were still a Telegraph journalist, mindful of the need for a healthy business to finance journalism of the highest quality, I would want the UAE. With its deep pockets, the Emirates stands a far better chance than the owner of GB News of restoring The Daily Telegraph to the great national broadsheet it once was, and can become again.

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