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Foreign powers must be banned from owning British newspapers – ex-Tory minister

Foreign governments must be banned from owning British newspapers, a former Tory Cabinet minister has said.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean argued that is the Government’s duty to maintain a free press that is “not subject to undue influence”.

His comments come amid concerns over a proposed UAE-backed takeover of the Telegraph newspapers and The Spectator.

The Conservative peer said: “Surely it is an absolute duty, it is an absolute principle here that foreign governments should not be able to own newspapers.

“In every corner of this House, people are concerned by the idea that the Daily Telegraph could fall into the ownership of a foreign government, and yet the Government is doing nothing about it in this bill, which I believe they could.

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“I can think of few countries that are less suitable to own a newspaper than the UAE.

“Does the Government really believe that it can be right for a country, a government of a country like the UAE that has a dreadful record on censorship and editorial influence, which is noted for its threats to free expression and accurate presentation of news?

“A country that locks journalists up because they say things with which they disagree, a country which is listed as 145 out of 180 countries on the freedom index.

“Is it really going to be our role as a nation and a Government to achieve the distinction of being the first country in the world to allow a quality newspaper with a large readership to be owned by a foreign government?

“Free press is a central part of a free country and, if we are going to allow the UAE today, why not other states tomorrow?

“Why not North Korea?”

The proposed sale of the Telegraph newspapers is to RedBird IMI, which derives most of its funding from Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who is vice-president of the UAE and owner of Manchester City FC.

Media sale
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (Martin Rickett/PA)

It is understood that RedBird IMI is offering to help pay the £1.16 billion in debts that the current owners, the Barclay family, owe to Lloyds Bank.

Lord Forsyth said: “I know that my former colleague George Osbourne and others have been very active arguing that actually that it’s not the Sheikh, it’s not a foreign government because they’ve set up a structure.

“You know, we have a saying in Scotland: He who pays the piper, calls the tune.

“In this case, the amount being paid is very considerable.

“It’s been a while since I did valuations of companies, but I would struggle to get beyond £400 million for the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator and very considerably more is being paid.

“That doesn’t strike me as an investment opportunity, that strikes me as being an influence opportunity – and that is what is behind the acquisition of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator and that is why a substantial premium is being offered.”

These comments came as peers in Westminster debated the Media Bill, which is set to update decades-old broadcasting laws.

Lord Forsyth told the House of Lords that the Public Bill Office had informed him that banning foreign state ownership of British publications is out of the scope of the Bill, but that he disagreed.

Chairwoman of the Communications and Digital Committee, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, agreed that foreign governments must be banned from ownership of these newspapers.

She said: “Personally I have no problem with foreign businesses owning UK media, they are a large reason why we have a thriving media environment that is financially independent of government.

“But I do have principled concerns around ownership by foreign governments or outfits under significant government control.

“That is materially different and raises big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlets owners and its coverage.

“We need to have confidence in our media.

“Having foreign governments own such a critical and sensitive part of our nation is not only unnecessary and troubling, if it was allowed to happen, it would completely undermine public confidence in our free press.

“At the moment there are no automatic measures to prevent this, which does not seem right.”

However, she noted that she had also been advised that this issue is out of scope of the Media Bill, so she has instead submitted an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill.

This amendment, co-signed by Lord Forsyth and two others, states that foreign governments should not be allowed to buy news media organisations unless the Secretary of State, relevant regulator and Parliament agree to the proposal.

She warned the Government that she expects them to “take it seriously”.

Culture minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay argued that the Government already has powers in this regard.

He said: “Under the Enterprise Act 2002, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene in media mergers on certain public interest grounds, including where there are concerns about media freedom and freedom of expression.

“The Government also already has tough powers, including through the National Security and Investment act 2021, to address foreign interference and to scrutinise and, if necessary, intervene in acquisitions on grounds of national security.”