Zucker told The Telegraph’s business editor Christopher Williams he would resign if anyone came to him with any suggestion of pressure on the editorial team from the UAE.
“I understand why people have raised questions,” he said. “All I can say is, they’re misplaced. I am here to say that the editorial independence of The Telegraph is guaranteed.”
Zucker is chief executive of the investment group Redbird IMI, a joint venture between US investment firm Redbird Capital and International Media Investments which is led by UAE deputy prime minister and Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
The bid is currently the frontrunner as they have agreed a package of loans that would enable former Telegraph and Spectator owners the Barclay family to pay back their debts to Lloyds Banking Group and take the titles out of receivership. Zucker and his group would then aim to take formal ownership as soon as possible.
They have been given a deadline of Friday (1 December) to repay the money to Lloyds or the plan is likely to collapse as a court hearing scheduled for Monday (4 December) will liquidate the Barclays’ holding company.
Zucker said Redbird IMI is “continuing to do due diligence” ahead of the deadline but is feeling “really positive”.
But another potential hurdle is the fact Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has said she is “minded to” issue a Public Interest Intervention Notice due to the foreign investment and potential public interest concerns. Any investigation could lead to safeguards on editorial independence being enforced or even the deal being blocked altogether, with the likes of GB News investor Sir Paul Marshall, DMGT owner Lord Rothermere and National World chairman David Montgomery waiting in the wings.
Update: On Thursday 30 November, Frazer said she had decided to intervene in the Barclays’ deal. Ofcom will look at the public interest considerations of the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers, while the Competition and Markets Authority will report on jurisdictional and competition matters. The two watchdogs have a deadline of 26 January.
Jeff Zucker and ‘long relationship’ with UAE
Zucker told The Telegraph, however, that although he is backed by the UAE, The Telegraph’s future would be led by him and not his partners.
“This is me. This is not IMI or Abu Dhabi,” he said. “In fact the legal document that formed this joint venture says that IMI in no way has anything to do with the running of any of our investments. They are there at the entrance making the investment and at the exit.”
Zucker explained that he had a “long relationship” with the UAE from his time at CNN, as the Gulf state housed the broadcaster’s third biggest bureau outside the US.
“When I left CNN, they approached me about starting a media fund. They came to me and they said, ‘people come to us every day about starting a media fund but we know you, we trust you, we back you’.” The “they”, he added, refers to people at the “highest level” of the state.
“I’m the one that then went to Redbird because I was having separate, independent conversations with them,” Zucker continued. “I said ‘why don’t we marry these two ideas?’ That’s how it happened.
“The UAE was backing me. This wasn’t a UAE thing. It was me and they were backing me.”
Zucker told the Financial Times last week he would create an editorial advisory board to uphold the independence of The Telegraph and The Spectator and provide reassurances, although this proposal was not repeated in the latest interview.
Instead, he said: “If The Telegraph writes a story that is true, then then there are no issues. The Telegraph should be in pursuit of the truth. That’s it, wherever it leads. Nobody is telling the Telegraph what to write or what not to write.”
Explaining why they then got involved in the auction process for The Telegraph, Zucker added: “Assets like this do not come on the market very often, okay? The Telegraph is one of the best journalistic brands in the English-speaking world. And so it made complete sense for me to say we should look at this.”
Zucker noted it is a “business deal” and he “wouldn’t be interested in it if we didn’t think that we could have commercial returns on it”.
In October The Telegraph’s website was the tenth biggest news website in the UK, with an audience of 13.8 million or 28% of UK adults. It has not released print circulation figures since the start of 2020 when it said it was focusing on its subscription strategy rather than scale.
This year Telegraph Media Group passed one million subscriptions, boosted by the acquisition of Chelsea Magazine Company.
The strategy has proved a financial success so far with profits up by 32% last year to £39m and turnover up 4% to £254.2m.
Telegraph subscribers threaten to leave
The comment section under The Telegraph’s Zucker interview was filled with people warning they would cancel their subscriptions if the deal goes ahead.
One said: “Jeff Zucker turned CNN from a news organisation to a left wing propaganda outlet with hardly any viewers, if this deal goes through I’ll be cancelling my subscription.”
Another said: “Jeff Zucker turned CNN into a woke joke. It was known as being a straight-reporting news outlet and turned into the most ridiculous lefty propaganda channel. This man will destroy the Telegraph. Very hard to recover a ruined reputation. I won’t stick around to witness the slide.”
A third added: “It’s funny and ironic that Zucker saying the Telegraph being run by him and not Abu Dhabi would act as some sort of ‘reassurance’ to Telegraph readers.
“What he seems to be unable to realise (or unwilling to acknowledge) is that a clear majority of Telegraph readers/subscribers are against being state-owned by any middle east country, AND equally also against being run by someone like Zucker, after running CNN for nearly a decade, their reputation amongst centre right/conservatives(e.g. Telegraph readers) are very much tarnished.
“And I’ve said it before, if this deal goes through, my subscription will be cancelled.”
Others shared similar sentiments – but in response to one person saying they would sign up elsewhere, another comment questioned: “But where? The Spectator?” in reference to the current affairs magazine that would also come under the same ownership in the deal.
The comments section appeared to back up polling, reported by Press Gazette on Tuesday, that found 27% of 307 surveyed Telegraph subscribers would be “much less likely” to renew their subscription if the UAE-backed deal went ahead.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Zucker attempted to assuage the concerns about his time at CNN. He said: “Half the people in the United States think that I was responsible for Donald Trump’s election, because I put him on The Apprentice. Half the people think that we were too tough on Donald Trump at CNN.
“My view always has been that we were not anti-Trump. We were pro-truth. Now, if that was confused with being anti-Trump. That’s not my fault. That’s because he couldn’t tell the truth.”
The polling of Telegraph readers was commissioned by Stack Data Strategy, a sister company of PR firm Hanbury Strategy, which is assisting former Vote Leave donor Sir Paul Marshall’s bid for the newspaper.
“I do find it quite ironic, hypocritical even, Zucker said. “Two months ago, we were somebody that they thought they wanted to do business with.”
However, a spokesperson for Sir Paul Marshall’s Unherd Ventures said: “Sir Paul Marshall has never had any discussions with Redbird IMI about any bid for the Telegraph. He has never spoken to Jeff Zucker.”
Who has spoken out against the Redbird IMI Telegraph deal?
On Wednesday 18 Conservative MPs, including former leader Iain Duncan Smith, wrote to Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden to say they believe the Redbird IMI deal would present a “very real potential national security threat”.
During a time of increased geopolitical tensions, information warfare is more relevant than ever – and with the UAE’s increasingly influential position as a mediator and power-broker, the risk for interference in Britain’s national conversation seems self-evident if the acquisition is allowed to go ahead,” they wrote.
On top of Frazer’s potential intervention, they asked for scrutiny under the National Security and Investment Act.
Former Telegraph editor Charles Moore opposed the deal in the newspaper’s comment pages. He wrote that “the greater risk of the paper being owned by the UAE is probably not one of day-to-day interference. It is simply the perception of Emirati control in the minds of the British public”.
Even if readers’ suspicions about interference in stories about subjects like Israel/Palestine, Manchester City or oil markets are unjustified, he said, “how could editors allay them?”
Moore added: “We journalists can sound pompous and self-serving when we talk up our trade. But it is little more than a statement of fact to say that The Telegraph and The Spectator are great British institutions. They should not be controlled by a foreign power.”
Former Conservative leader and foreign secretary William Hague also opposed the deal. Writing in The Times, he noted that the UAE has a very different relationship with media it controls, citing an occasion when a senior figure in the Gulf state was baffled by the fact the BBC could report “embarrassing” stories without interference.
He noted that hostile stories “would be something they would find very hard to understand” and urged the culture secretary to intervene.
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