Parliament protects press freedom as foreign powers blocked from owning UK newspapers

In a landmark ruling for press freedom, the UK government has announced plans to introduce legislation preventing foreign state control of national newspapers and news magazines. The new law is widely expected to scupper the controversial £600m sale of the Telegraph to a UAE-backed consortium.

In a landmark ruling for press freedom in Britain, the UK government has announced plans to introduce legislation preventing foreign state control of national newspapers and news magazines. Although details of the government’s amendment won’t be published until next week, it is widely expected to scupper the controversial sale of the Telegraph Media Group to a United Arab Emirates (UAE) backed consortium.

That’s great news. The FSU has been lobbying behind the scenes to block this sale, working with peers to put pressure on the government, and we’re pleased to have played a part in this decision. Freedom of the press must always be defended.

RedBird IMI – an investment fund 75 per cent backed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s vice-president and owner of Manchester City Football Club – has been seeking to acquire the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator. However, the planned takeover has been fiercely opposed by MPs, peers and journalists from across the political spectrum, who have raised concerns about the Gulf state’s record on press freedom.

The UAE currently ranks 145th out of 180 countries included in the World Press Freedom Index. Campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which compiles the Index, says the country’s government “prevents both local and foreign independent media outlets from thriving by tracking down and persecuting dissenting voices”.

RSF’s “country fact-file” also notes that the UAE’s ‘National Media Council’ censors content that criticises government decisions, while “examining and sanctioning foreign media content, which is subject to national standards”.  

During an urgent question on the proposed sale in the House of Lords, Conservative peer Michael Forsyth said blocking the Emirati bid was an “absolute no-brainer”. Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone took to the floor of the House of Commons to tell government minister Julia Lopez there was a “national security implication to the takeover”, and “the mood of the House of Commons is that this is simply not on”. Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, also gave her view, and the view of the Labour Party, that “ownership by a foreign power is incompatible with press freedom, which is essential in a democracy”.

Lord Moore, a former editor of the Telegraph, criticised the planned takeover back in December, describing the paper as a “great British institution” that must not be “nationalised” – especially by a state that does not cherish press freedoms. “It seems to me obviously bizarre,” he said, “that a free newspaper in a free country, a very important national title and a very important magazine, with the Spectator, should fall into such hands.”

Janet Daley, a senior journalist at the paper, raised similar objections. “The only point worth considering here,” she wrote, “is that in a free society no government – including the country’s elected one – should own a news media outlet.”

She added: “The power wielded by a state must be, always and without qualification, separate from the presentation and analysis of information in the public domain. That principle has been one of the distinguishing differences between tyrannies and democracies in the modern world.”

Prior to the government’s announcement, peers had been set to debate an amendment to the third reading of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

The amendment was laid by Tory backbench peer Baroness Stowell as an attempt to prevent such takeovers by foreign states. In a letter to the Prime Minister last week, she said: “The principle of our news media being free from government control or interference is in jeopardy” and vowed that if he did not support her amendment, which would grant Parliament a veto over any sale to a foreign state, she would force a vote on it to show the strength of feeling in the Lords.

If, as seems likely, the amendment had passed there, the Bill would have returned to the Commons, where close to 150 Tory MPs were willing to push the amended version through with the help of the Labour Party, which had already made clear its view that governments cannot own publications.

Facing possible defeat on the amendment, media minister Lord Parkinson announced during Wednesday’s debate that the government would put forward its own amendment to prevent “newspaper and periodical news magazine mergers involving ownership, influence or control by foreign states”. This prompted Baroness Stowell to withdraw her amendment – although she did also threaten to bring it back if the text of the government’s amendment failed to live up to her free speech expectations.

Lord Parkinson told the chamber that under the new measures, the Culture Secretary “would be obliged to refer media merger cases to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) through a new foreign state intervention notice if she has reasonable grounds to believe that a merger involving a UK newspaper or magazine has given or would give a foreign state – or a body connected to a foreign state – ownership, influence or control”.

The CMA would then “be obliged to investigate the possible merger and, if it concluded that the merger has resulted or would result in foreign state ownership, influence or control over a newspaper enterprise”, the Culture Secretary “would be required by statute to make an order blocking or unwinding the merger”, he said.

Could the Emirati government get around this, and still buy ‘influence’ by reducing their stake or purchasing the Telegraph Media Group with non-voting (i.e., no control) shares as opposed to ordinary shares? Spectator editor Fraser Nelson thinks not. “My understanding is that ministers don’t intend to leave any loopholes and intend to outlaw this,” he said. “They’d do it in such a way that it doesn’t, for example, force the Norwegian State Pension Fund to sell a two per cent stake in the Daily Mail.”

Although the proposed buyout is still the subject of a separate investigation ordered by the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, due to its possible impact on press freedom, Lord Parkinson indicated that the changes to primary legislation proposed by the government’s amendment would still apply to the Telegraph Media Group takeover if they pass into law swiftly.

“The Secretary of State is currently considering a live merger case under the Enterprise Act regime, on which I cannot comment further today,” he told peers, before adding: “With regard to any live case, if it is still ongoing when the new changes come into effect, the Secretary of State will continue to follow the process set out in the existing regime and will also apply the new measures that will be set out in the Government amendments.”

The government will publish the full text of the amendment next week. Although the changes will be implemented via the Digital Markets Bill, the law that is to be reworded is the existing Enterprise Act 2002.