The Barclay Brothers, it seems, have acquired the Daily Telegraph. And also, it should be said, The Spectator. What an incredible thing. Whatever their shortcomings as newspapermen — I shall be coming on to that — no one could deny the brilliance of their coup. Suitors were queuing ten deep to buy the Telegraph Group, and sums as high as £600 million had been mentioned. Meanwhile the Barclays were talking in secret to Conrad Black. They have bought his 30 per cent stake in Hollinger International, which owns the Telegraph Group, for a mere £260 million. This gives them (since Lord Black had fixed things in his favour) 73 per cent of the voting rights in the company. In effect they control the Telegraph titles having paid about half the amount of money they would have had to shell out in order to buy them outright. Their writ also runs over the Chicago Sun Times, the Jerusalem Post and some smaller titles.
Of course it may not end there. It is not absolutely certain that the Barclays have succeeded. They would seem to have nothing to fear from the regulatory authorities in this country. In America, the Securities and Exchange Commission is watching events closely, though it said on Tuesday that it would not interfere in the sale so long as its investigations into Hollinger were unimpeded. However, lawsuits from angry Hollinger shareholders seem to be inevitable, and the Barclays may have to come to some financial accommodation with them.There could be hidden liabilities which will cause the Barclays to dig into their pockets once more. Nonetheless, this was a very dashing move. The Barclays saw that Lord Black felt the need of some funds to tide him over, and that he would enjoy cocking a snook at Hollinger shareholders, who he believes have unjustly harried him. In 1985 Lord Black acquired the Telegraph titles in controversial circumstances, and 19 years later he is disposing of them in controversial circumstances.
All doubts have therefore been removed, if there were any, about the Barclays’ prowess as businessmen. They are very rich and very clever. It is not possible to be so sanguine about their abilities as publishers. Indeed, until they acquired the Telegraph Group they had presided over a series of setbacks. They lost tens of millions of pounds on the European as its circulation dwindled, and the paper was finally closed. They bought, and revived, the Business, on which they have also lost millions of pounds. They have had more success with the Scotsman, though there are plenty of people in Edinburgh who will tell you that it is not what it was. Large sums of money have been invested in the paper without there being a noticeable effect on its sales.
This propensity to sink money into not very startlingly successful newspaper ventures may be regarded as almost saintly. The Barclays have made hundreds of millions of pounds in business and it has seemed, at any rate until their acquisition of the Telegraph Group, that they are happy to put some of their wealth into journalists’ pockets. They appear to enjoy owning newspapers, though they do not throw their weight around, or thrust their political views down the throats of their editors. The greatest beneficiary of their largesse has been Andrew Neil, who has managed their newspaper mini-empire in Britain. In effect they have given him a train set and allowed him to do with it as he pleased. (Perhaps significantly, though, he was excluded from the recent negotiations with Lord Black.) Mr Neil is a brilliant man: a former successful editor of the Sunday Times, a lively columnist, a keen political observer, and the best political frontman on television, though also the most underappreciated by the BBC. Whether God also earmarked him for the role of newspaper chief executive is another question.
Many journalists who work for the Telegraph titles may see in the Barclays the ideal proprietorial virtues. They have already been compared to Lord Thomson of Fleet, equally indulgent and unwilling to interfere, who spent a fortune on the Times and Sunday Times until Rupert Murdoch bought them. Sir David Barclay told Tuesday’s Guardian that he and his brother Frederick ‘don’t interfere’ in the editorial decision-making of their newspapers. This is what many journalists like to hear. But editors, however brilliant, require a strong guiding presence in the shape of a proprietor or advisory board to keep them on the straight and narrow. And the Daily Telegraph, it seems to me, faces particular difficulties which call for the undivided attention of a strong, experienced and knowledgeable proprietor. As I pointed out the other week, it has been losing sales for nearly a quarter of a century, though it remains the country’s largest-selling quality paper. How can its decline be reversed? Its new owners must also decide whether to follow the Times and Independent and produce a tabloid edition. In his Guardian interview Sir David appeared to say that, if they did this, the broadsheet version would be junked altogether. That could spell disaster.
There are other reasons for having qualms about the Barclays. For many years they appear to have spent most of their time abroad. One must wonder how attuned they are to the preoccupations of Telegraph readers. I am not thinking here so much of readers’ political allegiances. Sir David told the Guardian that the Daily Telegraph might back New Labour, only to contradict himself in a statement a few hours later. Someone must have told him that this would be the surest way of losing readers. (The Telegraph has an even higher proportion of Tory readers than the Daily Mail.) I am sure that the paper will continue to be broadly Conservative in a narrow political sense, but I am not so sure that in a wider, and much more important way, it will go on reflecting conservative values. Even under a Catholic proprietor and latterly, in Charles Moore, a Catholic editor, the Daily Telegraph has remained a distinctly Anglican paper. It believes in the family. In a wider sense, the paper is strongly Unionist. It is the paper of the armed forces. It is Royalist. These are powerful and ancient strands which could easily be lost under a new regime that failed to understand the paper’s cultural inheritance. Of course, Lord Black added some strands of his own, such as a passionate defence of Israel and a conviction that the United States of America is always right, which Telegraph readers might be happy to dispense with.
Conrad Black has done some very silly things, and God knows what the future has in store for him. He was even more of an outsider than the Barclays. Nor was he, by temperament or background, one of nature’s newspapermen. But in his way he was true to the Daily Telegraph. He kept the flame alive. I hope the Barclays can too. They are far preferable to several of the alternative would-be owners. They seem to have the best interests of the paper at heart. But we should be in no doubt about the difficulties faced by this great and unique British institution.