July 19, 2024

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Spare us the sanctimony on fit and proper media owners

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By all means block the deal but spare us the sanctimony. A campaign is on to prevent Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, buying a major piece of the British media. That the titles in question, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator, are about the most important publications to the Conservative party is quickening anxiety.

For all the shifts in the media landscape, newspaper groups, and the rightwing press particularly, still carry an outsize weight in setting the political agenda. So it is not hard to see why the ownership of the Tory house journals — previously home to Boris Johnson’s scratchings — matters to Conservatives, who are making their case with high moral tone. They have a devastatingly simple argument. Sheikh Mansour is a leader of a foreign nation and one that does not believe in freedom of the press.

The UAE is a valued ally and investor in the UK. But it is not a good place to be a journalist. In the words of Reporters Without Borders (RSF): “As soon as they emit the slightest criticism, journalists and bloggers find themselves in the crosshairs of the UAE’s authorities, who are masters of online surveillance.” They can face prison for “insulting the state or spreading false information”. In RSF’s rankings of press freedom, the UAE stands 145th out of 180.

While the Spectator is thriving, the Telegraph (where I worked in the 1990s) is not the institution it was. Once a bastion of serious if somewhat crusty journalism, the title now too often descends into shrill populist paranoia and heated anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The would-be buyers are a joint venture of the Sheikh’s IMI and a US private equity firm RedBird Capital. Their supporters argue that IMI is not a UAE state entity — though it comes close — and point to safeguards to protect editorial…

2023-11-29 08:15:15

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