Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

Why Emirati ownership of The Spectator matters

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s vice-president, who is providing the majority financing for Redbird IMI, a US-based investment vehicle seeking UK government permission to buy the Telegraph (Getty Images)

Fraser Nelson has narrated this article for you to listen to.

George Osborne was originally meant to fill this slot. We were always rather mean to him when he was chancellor (deservedly so) so it pains me to admit what a good diary writer he is: always stylish, engaging, ready to spill some beans. He had agreed, but then suddenly pulled out, leaving us scrambling. Something had come up, he said. But what? The next day’s papers brought the news: he has been hired to advise the Emiratis in their bid to buy this magazine and the Telegraph. To write for us and sell us at the same time may have been a bit much, even for this famously adept multitasker.

I’d love to know what advice Osborne is giving the UAE. The Emiratis stand to be the first government in the world to buy a national newspaper in another country, so it’s a test case. Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, is considering what to do. Until now, sovereign wealth funds of foreign governments have been allowed to buy airports, shopping centres and even football clubs. But to buy newspapers, even through a vehicle like Redbird IMI, raises certain sensitivities. At least, it does if you think that a free press is important.

The problem isn’t foreign ownership. Many of our newspapers have thrived under Australian, American, Canadian and (recently, with the FT) Japanese control. But for a foreign government to become a proprietor? That’s something quite new. Newspapers and magazines are not like trains or shopping centres: they’re a vital part of our democratic apparatus. The British tradition has been that of a free press – and ‘free’, of course, means free from government interference. How to reconcile this principle with governments actually owning publications? One mooted solution is to set up a board of independent directors who would, in theory, act as a fireguard by protecting the editor.

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