Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

Lords amendment could thwart Emirati bid for Telegraph and Spectator 

George Osborne is acting for the Emirati-funded RedBird IMI in their bid for The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph (photo: Getty)

When the Emirati government moved to bid for the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, via an investment vehicle called RedBird IMI, ministers were blindsided. Since the 2008 crash, autocracies have been testing how much infrastructure they are allowed to buy in newly debt-addled democracies (as this OECD report details) but Britain had not really joined other countries in setting limits. The idea of a national newspaper (and magazine) being controlled by any government, let alone an autocratic foreign government allied to Putin, is plainly absurd. But no laws exist to prevent it happening, because no one thought a foreign government would ever attempt it.

The House of Lords could be about to change that. An amendment has been tabled to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill stating that ‘A foreign power (as defined in Section 32 of the National Security Act 2023) may not acquire a news media organisation or publisher of news in any form (“a publisher”) where the publisher’s primary place of business is in the United Kingdom’ without parliamentary approval. It is moved by Tina Stowell, a former cabinet member and backed by George Robertson, a former Labour cabinet member and Nato chief (underlining that this is about national security).

The phrase ‘foreign power’ is defined by the National Security Act to include the proxies and investment vehicles deployed by autocratic governments. George Osborne, who is currently acting for the Emiratis with this proposed deal, argues that RedBird IMI can be made independent of the Emirati government by the creation of a supervisory board guaranteeing editorial independence. The notion is not taken seriously within publishing, where such boards have always been proven to be a joke.

So what will happen now? This is a big test. A great many politicians in both Houses have expressed not only their anger at the proposed takeover (opposing it is a ‘no-brainer’ as Michael Forsyth put it) but we will now see how many of their lordships will vote for this amendment. It would, needless to say, have to be approved by the Commons. But this should be doable, given the cross-party objection to the Emirati power grab. The Tories have a majority in the Commons: if Sunak wants this to happen, then it will happen.

Why is it needed? Is this just theatre? I’d like to end by putting my case for consideration for any member of the Lords or Commons considering voting for this amendment.

We’re living in an age, now, where the Arab states are powerful, rich and no longer neutral. They are actively allying with Russia and China, playing all sides to make the most money. In December, the Emiratis gave Putin a hero’s welcome when he visited and called him their ‘dear friend’, underlining how good they have been about buying his oil and funding his war machine. They want to find out: if they’re buying Putin’s oil and berthing Xi’s ships, will this impair their relations with the UK? 

So far: not in the slightest. George Osborne didn’t hesitate to offer his services to Putin’s ‘dear friends’. David Cameron actually lived in Abu Dhabi last year as a well-paid lecturer (in the UAE-funded NYU campus) for a university term. The Emiratis have found they can do what they want while cash-strapped Britain looks the other way and begs for investment. The Emiratis may succeed where Huawei failed. 

Buying wind farms is one thing, 15 per cent of Vodafone is another – but to buy a democracy’s number one quality newspaper and its most influential magazine would set a new bar in the shopping spree strategy. The Emiratis bid for both the Telegraph and Spectator in the same month as they laid on a 21-gun salute for Putin. Their boldness is extraordinary. But so far, it has been vindicated. Putin’s ‘dear friends’ have found no trouble at all in enlisting the services of George Osborne and Nadhim Zahawi, both former Tory chancellors. This sends a big message: when MPs leave office (as most Tories will soon do), lucrative work with the Emiratis awaits. Advising, lecturing: whatever! It’s an incredibly effective strategy.

The Ofcom investigation into the sale, currently underway, is a joke: there are no competition concerns in the RedBird deal. That’s the whole point: the Emiratis nor any other autocracy has been allowed to own any other title in any other democracy. The deal could be blocked on national security grounds (pace Vodafone) but you can dodge that too, by watering down the Emirati stake to, say, 49 per cent. So I am not at all confident that this Tory government will block the deal. 

Alarmingly, objections to The Spectator’s sale have already been dropped. We are not mentioned in the new PIIN putting the deal on hold and we have also been dropped from the ‘hold separate’ order. It seems dangerously like a legislative green light from the government. The Spectator is not defined as a newspaper under the Enterprise Act so the government has no powers to stop us being sold to the Emiratis – or, for that matter, to the Kremlin, to Xi or any of their proxies. 

Parliament can now step in. In an era of information wars, having the power to prevent foreign states owning news providers is an act of common sense. If there is a consensus behind it, the Lords can act now to put that consensus into law. 

This is not about two right-leaning titles, but about whether parliament can block acquisitions on national security grounds. If the Emiratis are allowed to buy these two titles, they’ll be back for more: television or radio stations, perhaps. We can see an expanded role for Mr Osborne (word is that he is keen to act as auctioneer for The Spectator should the Emiratis wish to sell).

Just a few months ago, there were 22 companies down as prospective bidders for The Spectator and Daily Telegraph. They included some of the most respected names in British and European publishing, all keen to invest. There is a way to keep the free press inside the ownership of the free world, and it seems it falls to the House of Lords 


A blooming good offer

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