You don’t need a degree in media studies to know you shouldn’t rely on newspapers to cover the corporate interests of their owners. The Daily Telegraph, for example, largely ignored the otherwise delightfully on-brand story about tumult on Sark in the late 2000s. The few hundred residents of the sleepy Channel Island were up in arms about a pair of billionaires who wanted to set up glitzy hotels and a vineyard. The outsiders were, of course, The Telegraph-owning twin brothers Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay.
Even the most respectable papers are not immune. When I was education correspondent at The Financial Times a humdrum story by me about the annual results of its corporate owner – then the education publisher Pearson – was checked and amended by Pearson’s communications supremo before going to print.
The fact that journalists avoid soiling their own doorsteps is neither surprising nor a huge problem. Even the greatest proprietors have only a limited number of conflicts of interest.
Not so the UAE, which is currently trying to take control of The Telegraph titles and The Spectator magazine through a joint venture between RedBird Capital Partners, a US investment fund, and International Media Investments (IMI), an Abu Dhabi company controlled by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Mansour is the UAE’s vice president, deputy prime minister and brother of the all-powerful ruler of Abu Dhabi. If the UK government and regulators allow the deal to go through, IMI will own 75% of the newspapers.
The UAE is not a pair of eccentric, hotel-owning twins with a penchant for small Channel Islands. It is a state with an army. It has a diplomatic network pursuing an ambitious foreign policy. It has sprawling commercial interests, particularly in the UK. The number of potential difficulties this would cause the Telegraph is almost comical.
Start with the foreign pages. Would one have turned with confidence to a UAE-owned Telegraph for impartial news and views about Yemen’s civil war, a conflict where the UAE had troops on the ground between 2015 and 2020? I certainly would not recommend that anyone curious about this subject consult The National, an English-language daily owned by IMI. The National was set up amid much fanfare in 2008 by exiles from the Telegraph. Today it is full of puff pieces about the UAE.
And how would the paper have covered the UAE’s diplomatic and commercial blockade of Qatar from 2017 to 2021? In Libya, the UAE defied US and UK policy by assisting general Khalifa Haftar during that country’s civil war. A 2020 Pentagon report suggested that the UAE financed the Wagner Group’s Libyan operations. The UAE is particularly active in the Horn of Africa, where it competes for influence with its Gulf neighbours by building ports and making other investments. It picked sides in the recent conflicts in Ethiopia and Sudan.
The situation becomes even more ludicrous if you try to imagine how Telegraph hacks worried about their mortgages would have covered UAE stories involving the UK. There have been countless tales about British tourists and expats getting detained for moral crimes. More serious was the row over Matthew Hedges, the UK academic who was held for six months in 2018 and then sentenced to life imprisonment on spying charges. The UAE said he was a British spy; the Foreign Office said he was not. The British press sided with the latter.
Coverage of the UAE’s various royal families would be excruciatingly awkward for Telegraph hacks. The UAE government was seriously affronted by UK coverage of the kidnapping at sea in 2018 of Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the unhappy runaway daughter of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Maktoum. In their view it was a private family matter and not the business of journalists, including those at BBC Panorama who broadcast an embarrassing video of Latifa describing the kidnapping. Maktoum’s Jordanian wife, Princess Haya Bint Al-Hussein, filed for divorce in London when she found out about the abduction of Latifa. The High Court later ruled that Maktoum had given his ‘express or implied authority’ to hack the phones of Haya and her divorce lawyers. The Telegraph’s court reporter might have been wise to call in sick that day.
Then consider how The Telegraph would cover the UAE’s vast commercial interests in the UK, which include national institutions like Manchester City FC and critical infrastructure such as a 25% stake in Hywind Scotland, a big offshore windfarm. Through DP World, the UAE owns the container ports at London Gateway and Southampton. The UAE’s two national carriers – Emirates and Etihad – land twenty-one planes in UK airports every day (during Covid the UAE launched a diplomatic offensive to get the UK to take the UAE off its ‘red list’, in a bid to save its tourism sector). The UAE has made major gifts to Great Ormond Street Hospital and Exeter university.
The web of corporate interests will only get thicker as the UAE continues to park its abundant petrodollars in the UK. Telegraph journalists covering everything from sport to education will have to calculate whether certain stories are more than their jobs are worth. Few would accept RedBird IMI’s claim that IMI is just a passive investor that wants to respect the papers’ editorial independence.
If the deal goes through, there is surely a golden opportunity for a wannabe newspaper proprietor to establish a new set of conservative titles. It could welcome an exodus of Telegraph reporters, editors, and columnists anxious to preserve their freedom to write freely about what they want. The readers would then follow – a YouGov poll found that more than two-thirds of Telegraph subscribers would be ‘less likely’ to renew their subscription if the acquisition went ahead. So, if the UAE are after a decent return on their investment, they’d be better off looking elsewhere.
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