Few phrases are more likely to get the blood of ministers going than the words ‘Urgent Question’. Today it was the turn of media minister Julia Lopez, who was summoned to the House to answer MPs’ queries about the sale of the Telegraph and The Spectator to RedBird IMI, an entity bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates.
The UQ was tabled in the name of Alicia Kearns, chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, who asked Lopez what safeguards were in place to stop foreign state-owned companies buying up the British media. Lopez told the House that she could not offer any new information, but was there to listen to MPs’ views. She is being kept out of the loop in this quasi-judicial process, she added. But she went on to outline a few general principles, almost all of which are incompatible with letting the deal go ahead.
Lopez said she supports ‘a free media, not interfered with by government – or governments’. If so, how can you seriously consider letting governments actually buy newspapers? Newspapers, she said, are ‘able to project to the world what democracy, a plurality of views and debate truly mean’. But are publications really likely do so under the rule of UAE, where there is no democracy – and promoting such an ideal is either a crime or a career-ending mistake?
Defending freedom of the press, Lopez said, can be a cliché.
It’s something we repeat, automaton-like, in a way that risks complacency. But as I watch the actions of authoritarian states during these times of turbulence; as I see western democracies in a knot of angst over our own values and I see populations question if our values still matter – from the safety of these shores – I’m reminded of the need to make the case again.