11 March is the fated date on which Ofcom, the media regulatory body from the UK, will release the report concerning the desirability of the acquisition of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator by an UAE investment fund. In the meantime, the debate between those against the buyout and those supporting it is shaping up to become one of the most heated national issues since BREXIT.

Sir John Major, the former conservative prime minister, intervened last week arguing that “it is not a good idea” for vital British media to be controlled by “autocratic or semi-autocratic hands”. Sir Major considers that it is better for traditional newspapers with a wide readership to remain in the hands “of people who understand the British instinct”. His position is somewhat surprising considering the cozy relationship between Tory governments and the Gulf monarchy, and it comes in direct contradiction to that of another former occupant of 10 Downing Street, the current Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

Mr. Cameron is the informal leader of the body of politicians supporting the takeover, however he only issues sporadic statements on the matter. Instead, he facilitated the hiring of Mr. George Osborne, one of his closest collaborators, as consultant for the UAE-backed RedBird IMI in its bid to acquire the two media outlets. Mr. Osborne once served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron. The British press points out that, though Tony Blair and George Osborne were often at opposing ends of the political spectrum, the two resemble each other in the pursuit to cash out their political connections in the service of foreign entities. Currently acting as Chair of the British Museum, Mr. Osborne’s latest gig is advising Coinbase, the cryptocurrency company.

Mr. Cameron clearly knows what side his bread is buttered on and his affinity for the Emirati elites is well documented. During his stint as prime minister, he visited the UAE on three occasions, while the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was officially received in Downing Street in 2011, 2013, 2014 and, again, in 2015. However, an investigation by the Spinerwatch Group reports that dozens of behind the scenes meetings between the two men also took place during David Cameron’s time in office. Once Mr. Cameron was a private citizen again, he landed a lucrative teaching position with NYU Abu Dhabi. The Emirati rulers never forget a friend.

There exists on the part of the journalists working at The Telegraph and The Spectator a legitimate concern that once ownership changes hands, the newspapers will have to deal with a decrease in editorial freedom. The United Arab Emirates aren’t exactly a haven for free speech, and their human rights record is outright appalling. Add to this that despite the personal relationships between the UAE rulers and individual British politicians, the UK and the Emirates are often on opposing sides of geopolitical events, and it’s easy to comprehend why journalists feel anxious about the prospect of being pressured to report in a manner the contravenes their conscience and inclination.

In Libya, for example, the United Kingdom recognizes the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, while the UAE supports the forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, going so far as to bankroll the combat operations of the Russian Wagner Group in the country. The story is similar with the Qatar blockade of 2017-2021, when the UK and UAE found themselves on opposite sides of the barricade. Even with regards to Yemen and the current Red Sea crisis, the position of the Emirates is fairly murky and difficult to pin down. Can we really expect an autocratic country to exercise restraint and show respect for editorial freedom when national interest is at stake?

This, at least, is the argument of various voices inside the governing party, though it’s hard to gauge how much of it is genuine concern for the freedom of the press, and how much stems from a political calculation that once acquired, the two center-right newspapers will shift to the left. Whatever the motivations, their point of view is warranted, since together with the investment vehicle of Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, IMI (International Media Investment), the company RedBird Capital Partners is also a party in the takeover. RedBird’s new CEO is Jeff Zucker, the former CNN executive, and with him at the helm, the Tories contend, The Daily Telegraph is bound to increasingly turn into a mouthpiece for the left.

To further complicate matters, other bidders for the two British newspapers are their rivals from GB News, and even the American magnate, Richard Murdoch. So it’s a complex picture with multiple parties and competing interests, with ideology acting as the catalyst for deciding whether to support or oppose the transaction.

The argumentation for giving the go-ahead to the buyout tends to be rather abstract. Should the state intervene in a transaction between two private companies? As long as the sale takes place within the bounds of British jurisprudence, it should not, say the adepts of libertarian capitalism. Secondly, if an equity fund takes over a media outlet, it doesn’t necessarily translate into a change in political orientation. This is partly true, since any abrupt break with the past would also mean a significant drop in readership. Instead, any change will have to be subtle. The board of directors will gradually and over time alter the staff composition to reflect the values of the new owners. Less painful, but the result stays the same – a newspaper subservient to foreign interests.

The only thing that is certain is that on 11 March Ofcom will publish its report and the Cabinet will have to reach a decision. No easy feat, since the choice is between openness to foreign investment, a core precept of the Sunak governing program, and the desire to protect iconic British press institutions from the threat of foreign interference. More so, as this is a case of private companies transacting with each other, is the government even entitled to intervene?

Written by Eagle

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