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June 27, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:59am

Saudi investments in Evening Standard and Independent trigger Government probe

By James Walker

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has opened an investigation into the Evening Standard and Independent after an investor with “strong links” to the Saudi state bought shares in their parent companies.

Wright told Parliament today he has issued an intervention notice against Standard publisher Lebedev Holdings and Independent Digital News and Media.

His move will see the Competition and Markets Authority watchdog investigate “jurisdictional and competition matters” while broadcast regulator Ofcom will look at the public interest considerations relating to the accurate presentation of news and free expression.

The newspapers’ owner, Evgeny Lebedev, sold a 30 per cent share in Lebedev Holdings to Saudi investor Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel for around £25m earlier this year.

Abuljadayel also bought a 30 per cent stake in Independent Digital News and Media in 2017.

In a written statement to Parliament, Wright said he considered there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that a relevant merger situation has been created”.

“I have also noted what they [the companies] have told me about protections for editorial independence, including the provisions in their shareholding agreement,” he added.

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“However, I continue to believe that it may be the case that the public interest considerations of freedom of expression and accurate news reporting are relevant to this merger. I thus consider it appropriate for me to intervene in this matter.”

An ESI Media spokesperson said: “We are surprised and very disappointed that the Secretary of State has decided to issue an intervention notice on investments in Lebedev Holdings Limited and Independent Digital News and Media Limited.

“We believe this response is unfair and completely disproportionate to the facts.  This intervention will achieve the opposite effect to the Government’s stated objective of supporting public interest journalism, which we have made clear to the Secretary of State in our representations to him.

“As we have previously stated, we also believe that this investigation will create a further barrier to much needed future investment into the wider industry.

“The accurate presentation of news and freedom of expression is at the heart of our media outlets and we will continue to vigorously defend our editorial integrity when co-operating on this process.”

The intervention notice filing comes after the Wright warned Lebedev Holdings in a letter earlier this month that he was “minded to” launch probes into the share purchases.

Shares in the Standard were bought through the Cayman Island-registered International Media Company, while shares in the Independent were purchased by Scalable Inc, according to the letter.

Wright said the companies had shareholders with “strong links to the Saudi Arabian state”.

The parent company of the titles ESI Media responded by arguing there was “no legal basis for an investigation” and claiming it had “nothing to fear” from a Government probe.

Picture: Press Gazette

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