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Independent and Standard say they have 'nothing to fear' from Gov probe into Saudi deals

The company behind the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers has claimed it has “nothing to fear” from a Government investigation into Saudi investments in its two titles.

ESI Media has argued there is “no legal basis for an investigation” after Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said last week that he was “minded to” intervene in deals with an investor with “strong links” to the Saudi state.

Evgeny Lebedev sold a 30 per cent stake in Evening Standard publisher Lebedev Holdings to Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel for around £25m this year. Two years earlier the Saudi national bought a 30 per cent stake in Independent published Independent Digital News and Media.

Wright warned in the letter that he was “minded to” instruct regulators to launch inquiries into the share sales over public interest concerns.

He also noted in the document that Cayman Island-registered companies that bought the stakes had shareholders with “strong links to the Saudi Arabian state”.

In a written statement to Parliament had said he was “minded to” issue an intervention notice against Lebedev Holdings in relation to the deal, which would lead to him approaching Ofcom and the UK competition watchdog to report on public interest and competition concerns, potentially leading to a full investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority.

He added that public interest concerns in the holdings sales included “the need for (a) accurate presentation of news; and (b) free expression of opinion”.

Responding to the letter today, an ESI Media spokesperson said: “Today we have responded to the Secretary of State’s ‘minded to intervene’ letter on investments in Lebedev Holdings  and Independent Digital News and Media.

“We have explained why there is no proper legal basis for an investigation into these transactions, which we believe would be counter-productive and detrimental to the health and stability of the UK media landscape.

“We have nothing to fear from an investigation, but regard it as an unnecessary and expensive distraction, which could have a devastating effect on any future investment needed for the wider industry’s sustainability and growth.”

The spokesperson added that the outlets were “firmly committed to the accurate presentation of news and freedom of expression”.

They added: “Our editorial record speaks for itself. We uphold these values proudly, reflecting the trust the public places in us. We know that this trust is important – and all the more so in the current political climate.

“Our editorial policies, guidelines and reporting reflect these standards, as we have again reiterated to the Secretary of State today.”

ESI Media would not share its full letter of response to Wright with Press Gazette.

Wright said he would make a final decision on whether to issue an intervention by the week commencing 24 June.

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