The planned Abu Dhabi-backed takeover of The Telegraph poses a “profound security concern” to the UK which should be blocked by ministers, a former head of MI6 has said.
Sir Richard Dearlove said that the proposed deal was “completely unacceptable as a matter of principle” and urged the Government to “put a peg in the ground and say no way”.
The takeover has raised concerns about the editorial independence of both titles, with the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer ordering a public interest investigation into the acquisition.
Sir Richard, who served as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service from 1999 until 2004, said he was “completely opposed” to the deal.
“It’s completely inappropriate for an autocratic state - even at arm’s length - to be the owner of The Telegraph and The Spectator,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
“It’s just really I think completely unacceptable as a matter of principle, even if they’re saying they will guarantee complete editorial freedom.”
Negative or mocking commentary
Jeff Zucker, the former head of CNN who is leading the takeover, has insisted that The Telegraph’s independence would be “guaranteed”.
But Sir Richard said such assurances could not be taken at face value, suggesting for example that negative or mocking commentary about UAE leaders would likely be met with “unbridled fury”.
“I just cannot believe that there aren’t instances where they would interfere because it’s just in their nature not to let these things go,” he said.
As well as risking the independence of The Telegraph, Sir Richard said that an authoritarian state acquiring an influential British newspaper had much wider implications, because it could try to use the title to influence public debate on UK foreign policy - including in relation to China.
He said: “The other thing that is slightly worrying is the extent to which the Gulf states are developing their relations with the Chinese and trying to be much more independent in terms of their foreign policy despite the fact that they are an ally of the UK.”
As well as China “cosying up to the Gulf states by exercising more influence” in the region, he pointed out that Russia was also trying to woo the states, with Vladimir Putin making a rare foreign trip to the UAE and Saudi Arabia last week.
Sir Richard joins a chorus of high-profile figures warning against the deal.
Last week, the former cabinet minister David Davis said The Telegraph should not be foreign-owned because it exerts “massive influence” in elections and in Conservative leadership contests.
National security grounds
More than a dozen Tory MPs have also written to the Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, asking him to intervene on national security grounds.
Asked whether he had concerns about the national security implications of the deal, Sir Richard said: “In the broadest sense, given the influence of The Telegraph in particular, yeah.
“I think it’s not a specific security threat, but I would say it’s a security concern and quite a profound one.”
The former spy urged ministers to stop the acquisition going ahead.
“I’m basically completely opposed to the concept,” he said. “I think the symbolism is totally unacceptable. I mean can you imagine the French government allowing, let us say Le Figaro or Le Canard enchaîné, to be owned by a Chinese printing house or something like that?
“I know that the UK has a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign ownership but there are points at which you have to put a peg in the ground and say no way. And I think the Government should intervene to say this is inappropriate.”
He added: “Autocratic ownership, even arm’s length, is not on.”
“They may be benign despots, but they’re despots.”