Allowing a UAE-backed takeover of Telegraph Media Group would leave the UK “vulnerable” to foreign state influence, the Commons has heard.
Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, warned against the newspaper group’s purchase by investment fund Redbird IMI, which is majority owned by the vice president of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Culture minister Julia Lopez also faced calls to avoid “selling England by the pound” as she took questions in the Commons about the proposed takeover on Tuesday.
An investigation into the sale by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority has been extended after intervention from Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer.
The new deadline for Ofcom and the CMA to report is 9am on 11 March. On Tuesday Frazer issued a strict pre-emptive action order saying Redbird IMI and the other parties involved in the purchase “must ensure” no step is taken to integrate TMG with any other business and no significant changes are made to the publishing group’s organisational structure or composition of the board.
UK ‘cannot afford our media to be undermined’ by foreign state ownership
In the Commons, Kearns led MPs in warning about the impact the Telegraph sale could have due to Redbird IMI’s Abu Dhabi link.
The Rutland and Melton MP said: “The concern here is not foreign ownership, it is foreign state ownership, and in this situation you cannot separate sheikh and state.”
She added: “This is something that will make us vulnerable not for five years, not for ten years, but for the rest of our lives, and we cannot afford our media to be undermined.”
As she answered the urgent question, Lopez told MPs: “I’m in the frustrating circumstances that I can say only what is publicly known and nothing of the specifics about questions over the ownership of the Telegraph Media Group.”
Conservative former minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith ridiculed suggestions the minister could not answer questions from MPs in detail.
He said: “It is hugely new for us to be told we are not going to get our questions answered at the despatch box.
“We are used to that happening anyway, but it is always good to have us being told that it is a waste of our time being here in the first place.”
Sir Iain said he was among a cross-party group of MPs who wrote to the Government concerned about the takeover bid, telling the Commons: “We made it clear we weren’t opposed because we dislike particularly the government, which I have to say may well be a feature.
“But the reality was we would oppose it would the French government wish to buy the newspapers, or even this Government decide they would control it, we would oppose it on the basis it would trammel right across the idea of freedom of the press.”
Tory MP for Bracknell James Sunderland said: “Our national resilience, strategic independence, and critical infrastructure, as well as our media, are vital. So to quote the well known song, how do we ensure that we do not end up selling England by the pound?”
UK ‘not totally naked’ over media ownership rules
Elsewhere, Conservative former culture secretary, Sir John Whittingdale, said: “She [Lopez] will be aware that it is now over five years since the Ofcom report to the Secretary of State said that the internet has transformed the way news is provided and consumed and that there will need to be a fundamental review of the media ownership regime.
“Does she agree with that and can she say whether the Government will undertake that review?”
Damian Collins, a Conservative former culture minister, suggested there needed to be “clarity over the media ownership rules, and a presumption against sovereign foreign states acquiring assets of the UK media”.
Lopez responded: “I would just like to reassure members that it is not that we are totally naked in relation to this question, there are tools under the Enterprise Act that allow us to look into this, and I am sure that once this process is over, we will then be able to look back and say whether any further action or intervention is required.”
Shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire joined calls for the Government to reveal if it had plans to “review the existing rules on media ownership”.
The Labour frontbencher warned about the impact on journalists’ jobs, telling MPs: “This process is ongoing and employees at the Telegraph and the Spectator are left in limbo; senior journalists have expressed significant concerns.”
SNP culture spokesman John Nicolson suggested the takeover would be “unhealthy in principle for our democracy”.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog