Freedom of press in danger if UAE Telegraph takeover goes ahead, warns Jenrick

Robert Jenrick outside Downing Street
Mr Jenrick said Britain must not become 'the first democracy in the world to allow a foreign government to buy a national newspaper' - Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock

Freedom of the press is in danger if the takeover of The Telegraph backed by the United Arab Emirates goes ahead, Robert Jenrick has warned.

Mr Jenrick, the former housing secretary, called on the Government to back an amendment that would block foreign governments buying UK newspapers and media organisations.

Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the Commons, said MPs on all sides of the House supported Mr Jenrick in his fight against the ownership of newspapers by foreign governments.

But she stopped short of giving the Government’s backing to the amendment, which has been put forward by Baroness Stowell, the Tory peer, in the House of Lords.

A number of MPs and peers have warned of the ramifications of the takeover bid by RedBird IMI, a fund backed by the UAE government.

Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, has triggered a public interest investigation into the sale over concerns about the accurate presentation of news and free expression.

The proposed takeover is currently in limbo pending an investigation by Ofcom. The media regulator is scheduled to deliver its report to Ms Frazer, who will have powers to block the deal, by March 11.

Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary
Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, has the power to block the takeover when Ofcom publishes its report on March 11 - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

Mr Jenrick raised the matter during Business Questions in the Commons on Thursday morning.

He said: “If freedom of the press means anything, it means the freedom to criticise and oppose. And that freedom is in danger if we become the first democracy in the world to allow a foreign government to buy a national newspaper and media organisation.

“The noble Baroness Stowell has laid an amendment with cross-party support to the Digital Markets Bill in the House of Lords which would prevent this happening.

“Will the Government be supporting or at least not opposing that amendment in the House of Lords?

“Were it to come to the Commons, I certainly would be supporting it, and I would encourage all members to do the same because we must prize freedom of the press in this country and this amendment is our opportunity to do so.”

In reply, Ms Mordaunt said: “I agree with my right honourable friend in what he says: having a free press and a competitive media sector is a vital part of our democracy

“The secretary of state [Ms Frazer] has an obligation to intervene where there is a public interest to do so. There is a statutory judicial process – it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on that.

“But on the general point he raises he is absolutely right, and whilst he was speaking there was audible support for the position he has outlined from across this chamber.”

On Thursday, Mr Jenrick warned the Government that if it did not support the amendment, they would be forced to do so in a Commons vote.

“Our free press is a cornerstones of our democracy,” he said. “We must do everything we can to protect it. Takeovers of news organisations by foreign governments should not only face the usual scrutiny by regulators and Government, but also from elected representatives in Parliament as a final bulwark for press freedom.

“From my conversations it is clear there is very wide cross-party support in the House of Commons for Baroness Stowell’s amendment. I urge the government to accept it, or have it forced upon them.”

Lady Stowell, the chairman of the Lords communications and digital committee and a former Conservative Cabinet minister, has put forward an amendment to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill that would grant Parliament a veto on foreign state ownership of British news media.

In a debate in the Lords on Wednesday evening, she said the proposed takeover “raises big questions about foreign policy, editorial independence and the relationship between an outlet’s owners and its coverage”.

“We need to have confidence in our media,” she said. “Having foreign governments own such a critical and significant part of our nation is not only unnecessary and troubling – if it were allowed to happen, it would completely undermine public confidence in our free press.”

She asked ministers to take the amendment seriously and urged them to meet her to discuss it before it is debated by peers on March 11.

Also speaking in the Lords, Lord Forsyth, a former Cabinet minister, said Britain should not become the first country in the world to allow a foreign government to buy a quality newspaper.

He said the UAE was “totally unsuitable” to own a newspaper and that a free press was Britain’s “jewel in the crown”.

Lord Forsyth, a former Scottish secretary, made a “regret motion” that a ban on ownership of newspapers by foreign governments was not part of the media bill going through Parliament.

Addressing the takeover he said: “That doesn’t strike me as an investment opportunity – that strikes me as being an influence opportunity. And that is what is behind, I believe, the acquisition of The Telegraph, and that is why a substantial premium is being offered.”

The peer added: “Does the Government really believe it can be right for the government of a country like the UAE, which 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 number 145 out of 180 countries on the freedom index.

“Is it really going to be the role of our nation and our Government to be the first country in the world, I believe, to allow a quality newspaper with a large readership to be owned by a foreign government?”

Lord Forsyth said the Media Bill did not address the “elephant in the room”, which was the ownership of newspapers by foreign governments.