Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

The UAE bid for The Spectator is over

Jeff Zucker (right) runs RedBird IMI, which is mostly funded by Sheikh Mansour (left), the vice-president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates

In the end, it was watertight. The House of Lords has just voted through a new law banning foreign governments from owning British newspapers and magazines. Any ‘material influence’ has been banned, so neither the United Arab Emirates or any ‘foreign power’ will be allowed so much as a 0.1 per cent stake in The Spectator, Daily Telegraph or any similar publication. The Emiratis had agreed to buy both titles through RedBird IMI, a vehicle majority-funded by vice-president Sheikh Mansour. Tina Stowell, the Tory baroness who led the campaign, has now stopped this deal in its tracks. She drew from the government an amendment to the Digital Markets Bill which has just passed its third reading and will soon become law.

The UAE, which had hoped to add The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph to its list of British assets, is now likely to accept parliament’s decision in letter and spirit. We’ll now likely see a swift retreat, with a resumption of the sale process which was halted last December.

This debate goes wider than just a struggle for control of two publications. It’s a rare example of all parties in parliament coming together in defence of an important principle.

I read somewhere that the thwarting of the UAE bid was the work of a ‘Conservative establishment’. Tell that to George Osborne and Nadhim Zahawi, both former Tory chancellors who were actually working for the Emiratis to secure this deal. Tell that to David Cameron who was living in Abu Dhabi last year on a lecture deal paid for by the UAE government. Tell that to Lord (Dominic) Johnson, who said that press freedom is a ‘sentimental’ concept (he just happened to have agreed the deal where the Emiratis offered £10 billion).

So no, this was not about faction or party. Success has many fathers but Thangham Debonnaire, the Shadow Culture Secretary, moved the dial when she renewed Labour’s commitment to press freedom and declared herself against the UAE deal on principle. The Liberal Democrats were resolute, in both the Lords and Commons. The Green’s Caroline Lukas was supportive. Even SNP members pointed out that it was obvious madness to let foreign powers buy national newspapers. Not many causes have genuine cross-party support, but banning governments from buying newspapers is one of them.

No democracy anywhere in the world has allowed a national newspaper to be bought by the government of another country

Julia Lopez, the media minister, has delivered. She ended up delivering a government amendment even stronger than that which the rebels wanted. They’d originally asked for parliament to have the right to approve any foreign-power ownership of the press. Lopez went two better: she banned ownership this outright and pledged to update the definition of ‘foreign power’ to include disguised, sock-puppet entities like IMI. This is consistent with Lopez’s pledge in January to support ‘a free media, not interfered with by government – or governments’.

Eddie Lister, special envoy to the Gulf under Boris Johnson, says this will damage relations with the UAE. If the Sunak government didn’t want the sheikhs to buy the press then ‘they should have sent a signal earlier, they should never have let it get to this stage’. But he mistakes what has just happened. Ministers didn’t want to ban the Emiratis outright; their hand was forced by parliament. I’d also add that if the Emiratis wanted be seen as a reputable investor and a dependable ally, they should maybe not have given a 21-gun-salute welcome to Vladimir Putin last December.

A free press means freedom from government: there is no other definition. But the UK has no law offering this protection. Media takeovers can only be blocked on competition grounds. The Emiratis have persisted with their bid for The Spectator and Telegraph thinking the law was on their side and that they’d win in the end. They were probably right. Then Tina Stowell changed the equation – and the law.

This is how parliament is supposed to work. This is the whole idea of a second chamber filled with people who don’t see parliament or politics as a stepping stone. They have, in most cases, made their names. They are not on the make. They are free to speak on principle, free to introduce laws when needed – whether the government likes it or not.

The free press is not just a business: it is part of any country’s democratic apparatus. And in an era of acquisitive autocracies trying to buy soft power, this now needs to be protected. If the government is so anxious for Emirati investment that it can’t or won’t act, then parliament can. The Lords, so often written off as a sleepy second chamber, turned out to be the arena where the action took place.

The Lopez amendment also updates the definition of a ‘foreign power’. This is needed to counter the rise of disguised influence. For example, RedBird had said that IMI was not the UAE government, but a private fund that just happens to be run by the Emirati vice-president. Britain’s new law would see straight through that. It’s an example for others, too. Only today, we hear news that a member of the Qatari royal family has taken a $50 million stake in Newsmax in the US. The investment was via a fund, Heritage, which claims to ‘operate independently of any government’. Thanks to Stowell and Lopez, this excuse would now not wash in Britain.

Five weeks ago, after giving evidence to a Lords committee, I wrote pointing out the potential of Lords amendment to thwart the Emiratis. The point of that place, I wrote, was that if they all agree a law is needed then they can act.

Steve Bassam, a Labour peer, admitted to finding himself “in the rather somewhat novel position of fiercely defending the interests of the Telegraph newspaper group and The Spectator in the interest of press freedom”. Lord Forsyth summed it up: “Why should it take so long for Ofcom and everyone else to come to the obvious conclusion and put us all out of our misery?” The Lords have it within their power to speed this process up. Let’s see if they do.

They did. And I suspect what happened today will have global implications.

Britain’s tradition of free freedom is as fragile as it is crucial. It often comes close to being extinguished: by regulatory threat or, in this instance, autocratic acquisition. But thanks to the Stowell amendment and parliament’s revolt, our 300-year-old tradition of a free press is set to carry on for some time yet.


A blooming good offer

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers by getting the next 3 months for £3.

Already a subscriber? Log in