The Battle for the Torygraph

Abu Dhabi-backed investment fund RedBird IMI’s hunt for profitable investments in media, sport and entertainment in Britain, has hit regulatory obstacles in its bid for the Telegraph and its right-wing stablemate the Spectator.

Right-Wing Watch

The battle for the Torygraph is heating up. A controversial bid by Redbird IMI, an entity run by former CNN head Jeff Zucker and backed financially by the United Arab Emirates, has been met by fierce opposition within UK Conservative political and media circles. Andrew Neil branded the idea of a foreign government, and particularly a dictatorship, owning the publication as ‘absurd.’ Also vying for ownership are two domestic media giants, Murdoch’s News UK Corp. and the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT). Between them and Reach Publishing, they already control 90 percent of Britain’s newspaper circulation. Taking over the Telegraph would therefore add to Britain’s worrying lack of media plurality even further. The fourth horse in the race is Sir Paul Marshall, the GB News owner, recently accused of endorsing far-right, Islamophobic, homophobic and conspiracy theory posts. Giving the hedge fund millionaire another media platform to flex his right-wing muscle should concern us all.

It’s safe to say that the future of the Torygraph looks none too rosy. And as so often with Tory shenanigans, the story reeks of hypocrisy.

Post-Brexit, the UK government has been actively seeking investments from the Gulf to help sustain the economy. Football clubs, prime London property, media outlets and lucrative deals with BP; a growing number of Britain’s assets are being invested in and bought up by our oil-rich allies in the Middle East. Such is the scale of multibillion-dollar investments streaming from highly repressive Gulf states, namely the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, into UK institutions, that Gulf investors refer to London as the ‘eighth emirate’ of the UAE.

Such investment is often at the expense of human rights. In 2021, the UK halved its foreign aid to Yemen while continuing its arming of the Saudi-led coalition in the war-torn country. Over last five years, Britain has sold over £75m worth of spyware, including wiretaps and telecom interception equipment to spy on dissidents to more than 17 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Amid our unrelenting courting of oil-rich sheiks of repressive Gulf States, RedBird IMI, a joint venture between the American private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners and Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments (IMI), has its eye on the Telegraph and its right-wing stablemate the Spectator. RedBird IMI was launched in late 2022 with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, deputy prime minister of the UAE and owner of Manchester City football club, as a major backer and beneficiary of the fund.

RedBird IMI has been on something of a spending spree of late, acquiring the UK production company, All3Media, creators of hit shows, including Fleabag and Squid Game: The Challenge. But the company’s hunt for profitable investments in media, sport and entertainment, has hit regulatory obstacles in its bid for the right-wing titles.

The purchase, which is supported by Sheikh Mansour, would see the newspaper, currently valued at a reported £600m, come under full Emirati ownership. The transaction would reportedly include the UAE paying off the £1.2bn worth of debt that is owed to Lloyd’s Bank by the newspaper’s current owners, the Barclay family.

But the deal has sparked fierce resistance from some Tory MPs who are concerned about the newspaper’s editorial freedom. Scrambling to introduce laws to stop foreign governments being able to own British newspapers, over 100 MPs signed a letter opposing the buyout, pointing to the UAE’s poor domestic record on press freedom.

“If major newspaper and media organisations can be purchased by foreign governments, the freedom of the press has the potential to be seriously undermined. No other democracy in the world has allowed a media outlet to be controlled by a foreign government. This is a dangerous Rubicon we should not cross,” the MPs wrote in a letter to the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer.

The media regulator Ofcom has warned that the UAE has “clear political and broader commercial incentives to influence the editorial line” of the Telegraph. Frazer said the regulator has found that RedBird IMI, could look to exert influence over the newspaper’s output, particularly in matters relating to the Middle Eastern country.

The furore over the IMI ownership bid of the Telegraph raises questions about the double standards involving foreign influence on our media assets.

In 2010, Russian businessman and a former member of the KGB, Alexander Lebedev, bought the Independent, having taken control of London’s Evening Standard a year earlier. Lebedev later transferred control of the titles to his son, Evgeny, a friend of Boris Johnson’s. In 2022, Alexander Lebedev quit his role at the Independent, after being placed under economic sanctions by Canada for “directly enabling” the Russian war in Ukraine.  Despite concerns from senior government officials over Evgeny Lebedev’s links to Russia, shortly after becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson appointed Lebedev to the House of Lords. Several years earlier in 2017, Saudi property investor Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel had bought a 30 percent stake in the Independent’s online newspaper. Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor and former editor of the Independent, described Abuljadayel as a “rich man who wants to be richer, in short; and a Saudi investor seeking influence.”

“Money and influence are the two main reasons that people invest in media, and there’s no reason to think Abuljadayel is any different,” Rajan said.

If a similar fate was to lay in store for the Telegraph by essentially giving Adu Dhabi editorial control of the titles, then critics of the UAE ownership bid would surely have a point. But then again, how much editorial freedom exists at the Telegraph, or most other British nationals for that matter, where coverage is skewed by the political interests of their owners, is questionable anyway.

The Telegraph hasn’t earned its ‘Torygraph’ moniker without good reason. The daily broadsheet has endorsed the Conservative Party at every general election in Britain since 1945. When the newspaper celebrated its 100th birthday in 1955, it received a message of congratulations from its columnist Winston Churchill, who pointed out that he was the oldest and longest-serving member of the paper’s staff. 

When the Barclay brothers bought the Telegraph Group in 2004 for around £665m, Sir David Barclay suggested that the Daily Telegraph might no longer be the ‘house newspaper’ for the Conservatives. Such suggestions however failed to materialise, as the newspaper maintained and even upped its Tory party bias.

Prior to the 2010 general election, the Telegraph’s chairman texted David Cameron every day to suggest the Conservative leader spoke to the editor to ensure his party’s message was getting across in the newspaper. In 2015, the daily was fined £30,000 for sending an unsolicited email to hundreds of thousands of its subscribers urging them to vote for the Conservatives. During the Tory leadership election in 2019, the Telegraph endorsed its former columnist, Boris Johnson. The New Statesman described the broadsheet as ‘more of a parish newsletter churning out press releases for Boris Johnson’s campaign team than an actual newspaper.’

When you consider the decades-long political influence of the newspaper slanted heavily in the Conservatives’ favour, the hoo-hah about its sale to the UAE within Tory circles is not difficult to understand.

It looks like Middle East control of the Telegraph is immaterial anyway as the deal has all but been derailed. The question is, who are the other bidders, and would they be preferable to Mansour’s IMI?

According to the Telegraph, Murdoch’s News Corp UK and the DMGT have held talks about a potential takeover of the titles.

The “Who Owns the UK Media?” 2023 report, published by the Media Reform Coalition, found that three companies – DMGT MediaNews Corp UK and Reach – control 90 percent of the UK’s national newspaper market. These three groups also account for over 40 percent of total audience reach of the 50 largest online news brands in the UK.

DMGT is owned by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere and great-grandson of the Daily Mail’s founder, Lord Rothermere, who was a staunch admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. If DMGT Media is successful in taking over the Telegraph, then a single publisher would be close to controlling half of all the national newspaper circulation in Britain.

But the US-Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp UK has also expressed interest in adding the titles to his media business. Murdoch, who handed over operations to his son Lachlan last year but still plays a role in the business, has a shrewd understanding of how media and power work. With the Sun, the Times, and Sunday TimesNews UK already controls one-third of the nation’s newspaper market, as well as other UK media assets including talkSport.

But there is another party interested in getting its hands on the Conservative media titans. Paul Marshall, the hedge fund founder who funds GB News and donates generously to the Conservatives, wants to add the Telegraph to his rapidly-growing empire. Marshall also owns UnHerd, one of the biggest sites for political commentary in the UK.

The hedge fund billionaire is now considered the frontrunner to ownership race, despite having been found to have liked and shared multiple far-right, Islamophobic, homophobic and conspiracy theory posts online.

A source close to Marshall said: “If it comes up at the right price and at the right time, he will consider it.”

In response to the accusations that Marshall had endorsed far-right social media posts, his rival for ownership of the Telegraph, Jeff Zucker, said the GB News owner is “unfit to own a newspaper.”

Analysis by the Press Gazette confirms how right-wing political bias strongly dominates Britain’s newspaper circulation, with six of the daily nationals being right-wing, five supposedly neutral, and just two left-wing. The left-leaning papers have an average daily circulation of 300,000 and their right-wing counterparts have a circulation of 2,100,000.

Giving politically motivated media moguls an even tighter grip on an already highly concentrated press landscape by taking over the Telegraph and Spectator would surely mark a dark day for media plurality in Britain.

But then how UAE ownership would pan out is anybody’s question. If we consider how Abu Dhabi ownership has transformed Manchester City football club, perhaps the latter would be the lesser of the evils, at least from a business perspective? Then again, giving a repressive state without a democratic government control of a British media institution that is supposed to be part of our nation’s democratic process, is surely not what the country wants or needs?

Isn’t there a more left-wing investor out there with a spare £600m who might be interested in buying the Telegraph and giving Britain’s media that is heavily tilted to the Right some much-needed alternative perspectives? Sadly, capitalism tends not to work that way.

Right-Wing Media Watch – ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’; Plots upon plots or when is a plot not a plot?

Following a pathetically lame plot to get Boris Johnson back at No. 10, the right-wing media seemed to have set their sights on Penny Mordaunt.

‘Will Penny Mordaunt be the next prime minister?’ asked the Spectator this week, in what was another Tory title to devote editorial space to speculation about a so-called plot to oust Rishi Sunak and replace him with the Leader of the House of Commons.

The reports first emerged in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph last weekend. ‘Plot to crown Penny Mordaunt as PM: Tory MPs on Right have held secret talks with moderates about replacing Rishi Sunak with Leader of House,’ was the lead story on the Mail’s front page on Saturday.

“Ms Mordaunt has been identified as a potential standard-bearer for Tory moderates in a future contest in which right-wingers such as Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman would start as favourites,” the article continued.
By the Monday however, the newspapers had taken a notably different tone, deciding to leap to the beleaguered Prime Minister’s defence.

‘Rishi Sunak’s allies rage at Penny Mordaunt after she fails to quash rumours of a coup against the PM and Tory MPs spending the weekend plotting,’ splashed the Mail, insisting that the Prime Minister is ‘set to launch a political fightback after a torrid week.’ 

‘Mordant could lose seat – so stick with Sunak, says PM’s allies,’ headlined the Telegraph.

‘Penny Mordaunt isn’t the answer, her only ideology is mushy Blairite progressivism,’ claimed the Spectator.

Such antagonistic reports came despite Mordaunt having made no public comment on the speculation, but with sources close to her having dismissed the claims as “nonsense.”

In early March, Mordaunt was ranked as the most popular Cabinet minister among Tory party members, overtaking Kemi Badenoch. Suggestions have been made that as she is becoming increasingly attractive to centrists in the party, which could enable her to defeat right-wingers like Kemi Badenoch, the Sunak ousting plot was a deliberate ploy designed to scupper her chances in a leadership battle when he steps down. Speaking to i News, an ally of Mordaunt said that the briefings were an attempt to ruin her prospects as leader.

“I suspect what is partly behind this is people trying to make it difficult for her in future. It’s interesting that Kemi [Badenoch] is quite so loud on this,” the MP said.

Could the right-wing media’s deliberate amplification of the Penny Mordaunt rumour be an attempt to trash the Leader of the Commons’ prospects of the Tory crown once Rishi Sunak steps down?

Of course, the last thing the Tories need is another leadership circus. But as we move closer to the election, no doubt there will be more plots in the pipeline by the Conservative media as they set out to distract from the utter chaos engulfing the Prime Minister. It’s also likely that the Mordaunt plot has yet to run its course.

Woke-Bashing of the Week – Nike enrages the anti-woke bridage after changing the colours of the St. George’s flag

Nike is the latest brand to find itself in the firing line of the woke-loathing squad. According to reports peddled by the usual media suspects, the Mail OnlineDaily Express and GB News, England fans are furious about the sports brand’s update to the St George’s cross on the back of the new Three Lions short.

Supporters have apparently been left enraged when it was revealed that Nike had replaced the horizontal line on the traditional red cross with a navy blue, light blue, and pink one, despite the kits appearing to be a nod to the 1966 World Cup winners’ training kit, which contained blue, red and purple.

Tweeting the launch of the new kit, Nike wrote: “A playful update to the St. George appears on the collar to unite and inspire.”
Leading the backlash were the same old names. Nigel Farage and Brandan Clarke-Smith were said to be fuming, while Reform UK MP Lee Anderson described the move as ‘virtue signalling woke nonsense.’

“The left have a nerve to ask me why I want my country back.

‘This virtue signalling, namby-pamby, pearl-clutching woke nonsense must stop. Any more of this and I’ll be on the first flight to Rwanda,” Anderson told the Daily Express. (We can live in hope!)

Disappointingly but sadly not that surprisingly given his courting of the Murdoch media, including attending the media magnate’s midsummer party last year, Keir Starmer waded into the furore. In a grilling about the story by the Sun editor Harry Cole on the newspaper’s new politics show Never Mind the Ballots, the Labour leader said the original colours were ‘unifying’ and called for the label to be changed back, while recommending for the shirts to be reduced in price.

Naturally, the Sun went into reactionary overdrive, with the sensationalising headline: ‘Keir gets shirty: Keir Starmer blasts hated change to England footie short on Sun’s new politics show and demands kits must be cheaper.’

As well as collaborating with the right-wing newspaper, Starmer’s comments are disappointing given the Right’s history of reactionary objection to some of the England team’s gestures of unity and inclusion.

During the 2020 Euros, the simple act of kneeling against racism for several seconds before each game prompted so much outrage among the Right that the prime minister had to step in and attempt to quell the panic. Predictably, Lee Anderson, then a Tory MP of course, was so dumbstruck, he decided to boycott the team in protest.

It will be interesting what lies ahead for the ‘woke’ England team, their ‘woke’ manager, and their ‘woke’ kit designers, at this year’s Euros in Germany. No doubt the self-appointed ringleaders will be getting deliberately wound up as a means of bolstering their own niche political causes.

Fortunately, most of us respect the England team’s quest for tolerance, fairness, and unity, and couldn’t care a less about the design of a flag label on the back of the players’ shirts. We just want to watch a decent game of football.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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