The Culture Secretary has intervened in an Abu Dhabi-backed takeover of The Daily Telegraph by asking the media watchdog to investigate its potential impact on press freedom.
Lucy Frazer triggered a Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN) a week after she wrote to RedBird IMI, the investment fund behind the purchase, saying she was “minded to” intervene.
The Cabinet minister has tasked communications regulator Ofcom with investigating the sale’s impact on the accurate presentation of news and freedom of expression in the broadsheet newspaper and its stablemate The Spectator magazine.
An investigation by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has until January 26 2024 to report back to the senior Conservative politician.
RedBird IMI is an investment fund owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, vice president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and owner of Manchester City Football Club.
The fund, a joint venture between US firm RedBird Capital and International Media Investments (IMI) of Abu Dhabi, announced this month that it had reached a deal with previous Telegraph owners the Barclay family.
The deal would see debts the Barclays owed to Lloyds Bank repaid, the fund said.
Following the decision to issue a PIIN, RedBird IMI has pledged to “co-operate fully with the Government and regulator”.
Ms Frazer, in a statement, said her concerns that “there may be public interest considerations” associated with the takeover “warrant further investigation”.
Setting out the parameters of the CMA and Ofcom investigations, she said: “My role as the Secretary of State in this process is quasi-judicial and procedures are in place to ensure that I act independently and follow a process which is scrupulously fair, transparent and impartial.”
She said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would update Parliament “only after both reports from the regulators have been received and considered”.
A spokesman for RedBird IMI said: “We welcome the opportunity to provide the Government with the information needed to scrutinise our deal, and we will continue to co-operate fully with the Government and regulator throughout this process.
“RedBird IMI remains entirely committed to maintaining the existing editorial team of the Telegraph and Spectator publications and believes that editorial independence for these titles is essential to protecting their reputation and credibility.”
The Government had been urged by senior Conservative figures to step in to block or pause the takeover arrangement.
Former foreign secretary Lord Hague described the sale as “disturbing” and argued it “should be prevented”.
He said in an article in The Times this week that UAE owners could find the publication of hostile stories against their country “very hard to understand”.
I’ve backed @NeilDotObrien’s call for the Deputy Prime Minister @OliverDowden to exercise his powers to review the potential transaction relating to The Telegraph and The Spectator involving Lloyds Bank, the Barclay family & Red Bird IMI on the grounds of our national security. https://t.co/0ie0AgqYlH
— Alicia Kearns MP (@aliciakearns) November 29, 2023
On Wednesday, 18 Tory MPs wrote to Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden warning that the proposed transaction “presents a very real potential national security threat”.
The signatories, including former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns and chairman of the Defence Select Committee Robert Courts, suggested the Government use its powers to pause the deal and investigate its impact on national security.
But former party chairman Sir Brandon Lewis defended the move, saying it would be “unfathomably stupid business” for new owners to “wreck their investments by allowing any whiff of censorship to taint them”.
Jeff Zucker, the former head of US broadcaster CNN, who is heading the RedBird IMI investment fund, said on Tuesday that concerns over the takeover were “misplaced”.
“I am here to say that the editorial independence of The Telegraph is guaranteed,” he said in an interview with the newspaper.
A notice published on the Government website on Thursday said Ms Frazer had decided to issue a PIIN under the Enterprise Act after she had “considered representations” following her “minded to” letter sent on November 22.
The intervention notice triggers the requirement for the CMA to report to the Culture Secretary on jurisdictional and competition matters and for Ofcom to report on the media public interest considerations, the Government said.